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US Rail meets the 21st century
July 10, 2012 8:06 AM   Subscribe

It's been a big week for high speed rail proponents and infrastructure hawks. This week, the California Legislature approved startup funds for the $68 billion high-speed line linking San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento and points in between. Today, Amtrak unvelied its $151 billion plan (PDF) for the Northeast Corridor. Both will take decades to complete. Detractors worry about exploding costs and operating losses, while supporters stress jobs, mobility, and international competitiveness. Europe and Japan have lapped us a few times over. However, those who want to do this quickly and cheaply might want to take a lesson from once-ambitious China.
posted by moammargaret (245 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Correction: This article originally incorrectly characterized Amtrak’s high-speed rail as “shrinking travel distances” when in fact the new trains would merely shorten travel times. The reference has since been corrected in copy and we regret it.

You know, the "decades" this will take to complete would have actually made sense if the trains collapsed spacetime to get to their destination.
posted by griphus at 8:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [14 favorites]


A lot of talk over something that is never actually going to exist.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 8:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Streetsblog has a nice little wrap-up, complete with phased map of the system.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:15 AM on July 10, 2012


IwishIwishIwishIwish....

I don't get why people are so down on rail. It's so awesome, and makes one's life so much more pleasant when done right. But, sadly, I know I'm in a minority, so I'm not sure if any of this will ever be more than wishes.
posted by redbeard at 8:15 AM on July 10, 2012 [23 favorites]


Nice post.

I took Amtrak from Boston to Philly last week (the "slow" train, not Acela). I may never fly to Philly again. Hundreds of dollars cheaper than flying (as long as you book early enough), no TSA (although I noticed a drug-sniffing dog at the gate for NY-bound night train passengers as I disembarked), room to move around, and the food/drink options are really not too bad. Great time to catch up on that first season of "Breaking Bad."

What's more, the angel statue from the movie "Witness" is still at 30th St Station in Philly. That station is still a gorgeous monument to an eminently civilized way of travel that is long overdue for a comeback. Doesn't look like the bathrooms have changed all that much either (although the men's room in the movie was probably a set).
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:16 AM on July 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm personally very conflicted, as an unreconstructed Ted Kennedy liberal and railfan. I want badly to see this happen but I fear that the whole thing will implode disastrously.
posted by moammargaret at 8:16 AM on July 10, 2012


You know, the "decades" this will take to complete would have actually made sense if the trains collapsed spacetime to get to their destination.
Our new line will take about twenty years to build wholly, and that's with a pretty strong government backing. Even the first half will take til 2026.
posted by Jehan at 8:18 AM on July 10, 2012


This is the same country that created the Interstate Highway System, right?

/wish it was
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:19 AM on July 10, 2012 [13 favorites]


I don't get why people are so down on rail.

"People" aren't down on rail.

The more this costs the better, AFAIC. Every dollar spent on infrastructure is a dollar that won't be wasted on fake wars. The "decades" part I'm not so happy about. It took less time than that to build many of our systems from scratch.
posted by DU at 8:22 AM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is the same country that created the Interstate Highway System, right?

To be fair, the genesis of the Interstate Highway System began back under Roosevelt. Granted, there was a bit of a global conflict thrown in there to cause a hiccup.
posted by Atreides at 8:24 AM on July 10, 2012


Currer Belfry - Amtrak is really uneven. When it works well you wonder why anyone drives or flies but I can almost guarantee that if you continue using it, Amtrak will break your heart.
posted by The Lamplighter at 8:25 AM on July 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


Hundreds of dollars cheaper than flying...

Where is a nice long-weekend getaway from NYC that is cheaper to get to by Amtrak than flying or other brand of region rail? Over the years, I've gotten pretty used to the LIRR/MetroNorth/NJ Transit/Septa/etc. around here, but I've never once had a chance to take Amtrak, and I really, really want to. A friend of mine just took the Amtrak somewhere in a sleeper car (her job funded it, I'm pretty sure she'd have taken a plane if it was her own money) and I am jealous++.
posted by griphus at 8:28 AM on July 10, 2012


Also, who is down on rail?

Outside of our esteemed congressmen and women, of course.
posted by griphus at 8:30 AM on July 10, 2012


I don't have time to read all the links rigt now since I am at work, but I wanted to make sure this was said early in the dicussion: High-speed rail is NOT profitable.

The key metric for all railways in North America is the operating ratio, and passenger rail is not a good performer in that respect. French, German and Japanese railways are all heavily subsidized, they have an operating-ratio of 1.5 to 2 (meaning for every dollar they earn they spend $1.5 to $2). To maintain tracks for 200 mph or faster traffic requires a staggering amount of operating dollars, which a for-profit model can never sustain.

I will read the articles later, but I hope this issue has already been addressed in the links.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:31 AM on July 10, 2012



I don't get why people are so down on rail. It's so awesome, and makes one's life so much more pleasant when done right.

Because Europe and China have it. And they also have Communist Socialism.

Karl Marx was alive during the industrial revolution. That revolution is characterized by trains.

Clearly, trains spread communism.

When Jesus brought the Ten Second Amendments down from Mount Rushmore to give them to George Washington, it didn't include anything about trains.

QED.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:35 AM on July 10, 2012 [31 favorites]


High-speed rail is NOT profitable

Nor are the interstates, highways, roads and bridges that make up the massive majority of our publicly funded transportation infrastructure.

Mass transit doesn't need to be, nor should it be, run in a for-profit business model.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:35 AM on July 10, 2012 [82 favorites]


The "decades" part I'm not so happy about. It took less time than that to build many of our systems from scratch.

Yeah, but when they were built, the US population was half or less what it is now. People care more when you seize property that's being used for something than when it's lying vacant, and we're using a lot more real estate than we were 50 years ago.
posted by valkyryn at 8:37 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing: "A lot of talk over something that is never actually going to exist."

That's a silly thing to say. Although Amtrak's wish list is by no means fully-funded, there are a ton of NEC upgrades that are funded and being built. Because the NEC actually turns a nice profit "above the rails," Amtrak has a lot more leeway when it comes to improvements on this line, and they've already begun implementing pieces of their long-term vision.

Amtrak's already begun procurement for additional Acela railcars (to increase capacity by 40%). They're in the final design stages, and are about to begin construction to upgrade a substantial amount of track in New Jersey and replace an ancient/problematic bridge just outside of NYC. They'll be accepting delivery of new locomotives for the Northeast Regional sometime early next year -- when delivered, they'll be among the most advanced non-HSR* locomotives in the world. They're also in the process of designing new trainsets for the Acela (first deliveries around 2020).

*Actually, they're designed for 135mph, which technically counts as HSR. It's pretty dang fast for a general-purpose locomotive.

They're also developing a strategy to gradually introduce new and more advanced equipment throughout the rest of their system (which is getting seriously old; they're still using baggage cars from the 1950s). Amtrak wants to be able to order equipment in small batches, while preserving some commonality and standardization among its fleet. This will allow for their train cars to be newer "on average," and also allow multiple smaller (US-based) manufacturers to be able to bid on the contracts. The current strategy for US transit agencies to purchase huge batches of cars every 30 years has made it economically impossible for domestic firms to bid on these contracts. If they can pull this off, it will be a great thing for the American economy.

Amtrak's already making a lot of progress, and a lot of folks (myself included) think that immediate results from many of these smaller-scale projects will give Amtrak the political support that it needs to tackle some of its larger infrastructure needs. The

The Gateway project (adding 2 new tracks into NYC from NJ) needs to be the next big project in their crosshairs. The current two tracks into Penn Station are possibly the busiest segments of heavy rail in the world in terms of passenger volume, and additional capacity and redundancy are desperately needed.
posted by schmod at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


The argument against rail is that the billions of dollars could be used in other more worthwhile ways. Money is a zero-sum thing, money spent on rail is money not spent elsewhere. In China, no one's taking the train because it's too expensive, it's a white elephant. The fancy new 10 billion toll highway they just built in my neighborhood is not getting the traffic they hoped for, meanwhile local roads don't have the funding needed to upgrade intersections for safety because all the money went to the toll road.
posted by stbalbach at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2012


I don't get why people are so down on rail.

Because it is a substitute for driving a car. Indeed, with (even without) a decent rail network governments can do difficult things like tax fuel or vehicles more heavily to reduce usage.

Trains are the thin end of the wedge of communism, friend. Before you know it Uncle Sam will have you trading in your shiny, air con Cadillac and forcing you to sit next to a stranger on public transport.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:40 AM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


Taking high speed rail from Osaka to Tokyo costs about the same as flying, and takes the same total time from door to door. The only real difference (and an important one for some people) is that you can smoke on the train.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2012


Where is a nice long-weekend getaway from NYC that is cheaper to get to by Amtrak than flying or other brand of region rail?

NYC to Montreal via Amtrak can often be significantly cheaper than flying. It's 12-hours one-way, but the route hugs Lake Champlain and the Hudson river most the trip. The view is stunning.
posted by fatbobsmith at 8:42 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why are operating losses only a terrifying concern when it comes to train spending?

Why is the fatality rate never a terrifying concern when it comes to highway spending?

Priorities, man, this place has got weird ones.
posted by zjacreman at 8:43 AM on July 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm optimistic about rail but I'm really nervous about the California high speed rail project. The management of it is looking terrible and I really fear that California will not deliver. It's a lot of money to spend on something that could be a total failure, I'd be much more excited if I thought it would succeed.

The problem is the budget keeps getting revised downwards to match the current political and economic climate. No one really believes it will be completed at $68B; 2-3 times that is more likely. And in the revisions to budget they've thrown out any sort of meaningful engineering estimate of how fast the thing will really be. We're left with a trust us, we'll meet the 140mph average that's mandated by the 2008 initiative that created the project.

I live in California. I think it's the US's best state, the biggest economy, the most innovative, the most beautiful. California is also deeply broken and crumbling underneath pension obligations, collapsing school systems, and general financial incompetence. Tossing $68B into a rail system that may well fail to deliver is a bit alarming.

(See also the $1 billion / mile San Francisco Central Subway. But hey, it only goes 1.7 miles, so it's not that many billions of dollars to waste.)
posted by Nelson at 8:44 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


NYC to Montreal via Amtrak can often be significantly cheaper than flying.

I usually took a Greyhound to Montreal when I used to go there as a teenager. Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?
posted by griphus at 8:45 AM on July 10, 2012


I did some research on light-rail for a paper a few years ago and I remember reading that a light-rail system is worth 18 lanes of highway in terms of the number of people it moves in same amount of time at full capacity. I doubt that high speed rail has quite that same impact but it's still probably a better investment than trying to build more highways or adding lanes to existing ones. The savings from money that would otherwise have been spend building, maintaining, and monitoring highways should be factored in.

The only big objection I have to rail (light rail or high speed) is that it has some of the highest up-front costs of any form of transportation. Over the long run, it pays off better than most other options. In other words, it's exactly the kind of project that the government should take on.
posted by VTX at 8:46 AM on July 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


There's a lot of unfair jabs at opponents of HSR in here, just because people don't support a big sexy project doesn't mean they're Randian Hummer drivers.

For example, this dude thinks we could get similar results from a lot of smaller, cheaper changes.

Disclaimer: I don't live in the NE or know much about rail so I'm in no position to evaluate the proposed plan or that blogger's alternative. I think infrastructure is cool and we should spend more money on it but even if we halve the military and triple taxes on the rich funds will always be limited so there's nothing wrong with asking questions about the efficacy of hundred-billion dollar plans.
posted by ghharr at 8:52 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


schmod:

That's a silly thing to say. Although Amtrak's wish list is by no means fully-funded

That about says it all.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 8:55 AM on July 10, 2012


The comparable high-speed rail systems in France and Spain run operational surpluses — once they're built, these suckers turn a profit.

The comparison between AVE and CAHSR I think is the most significant one, since Madrid-Barcelona is very similar to SF-LA in distance traveled, size of population served, and terrain traveled through.

I wish I had better links for this, but here's a couple of recent financial reports from SNCF and RENFE (unfortunately it takes some digging around in there to find the data on the divisions that manage TGV and AVE...).
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


The other thing to keep in mind is that the LA and SF-area airports are pretty much all thoroughly overloaded — the costs of building HSR between the two is fairly high, but then again so is the cost of adding runways, especially on the SF end... expanding SFO, insofar as it's even possible, would be incredibly pricy.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:00 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


People care more when you seize property that's being used for something than when it's lying vacant

We can just do what we did originally, and send in the U.S. Cavalry under General Sherman to run them off.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:01 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


If America can't successfully develop a high-speed rail network, does it really deserve to call itself a nation? How incompetent/corrupt/idiotic do you have to be to not be able to handle large scale infrastructure projects that have a clear purpose and a precedent around the world in improving quality of life and economic mobility?
posted by cell divide at 9:02 AM on July 10, 2012 [11 favorites]


I don't get why people are so down on rail.

They think it costs a lot of money (and increasingly more over time) that the state doesn't currently have (we are in a lot of debt), without a proven way to recoup those costs.

At least, that's the problem most people express.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:04 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Swiss are regularly boring 10 mile long rail tunnels through mountains and we can't even get across the Hudson.

Half of congress wants to completely defund Amtrak.

One of the two major presidential candidates has said that he wants to defund Amtrak.

The media regularly refers to HSR projects as "boondoggles."

We're smart enough, and we know how to do it. We just don't have the political muscle.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 9:05 AM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Rail is indeed fantastic. Done right, it is a fantastic experience.

But.

I ask you this: given the infrastructure that the US is biased towards roads, would a better solution be upgrading our roads to support autonomous electric cars? Start with a single lane each way, where you drive to the entrance and then the autonomous systems takes over and merges you into the fast lane.

Pros, as I see them:
1. Uses modifed versions of our existing infrastructure. No new land to buy, no new major earthmoving.
2. Drives the development of electric cars which are still electric when they aren't part of the road train.
3. Door to door transport, which you don't get with a train.
4. Done properly, it would charge your car as you drive, either like a trolley or through some fancypants inductive systems.

Cons, as I see them:
1. Doesn't exist yet, of course. But could it be created for less than $219 billion?
2. Can't get up and walk around in a car on long trips. But if such a systems exists, it would be easy to have bus sized vehicles added later. Or even to start with, as the individual cars make their way into the hands of individuals.

What can I say, I'm an engineer, I look for technical solutions.
posted by BeeDo at 9:06 AM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Perhaps the reason that there is so much opposition to rail is because it doesn't make much sense in much of the country. I live in Philadelphia now and I get rail and understand how wonderful it can be, but when I lived in the Midwest it was not a very appealing option.

Why would I take a slow train (x2 as driving) if I have to rent a car when I get to my destination because there is limited mass transit (or the mass transit doesn't extend to where I need to be)?
posted by nolnacs at 9:07 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?

Of course it's not cheaper than the bus. That's almost ridiculous. As long as buses aren't required to pay for any of the infrastructure that they use, they're always going to be cheaper.

The train is typically faster (along the NEC anyway) and a hell of a lot more pleasant.

French, German and Japanese railways are all heavily subsidized, they have an operating-ratio of 1.5 to 2 (meaning for every dollar they earn they spend $1.5 to $2). To maintain tracks for 200 mph or faster traffic requires a staggering amount of operating dollars, which a for-profit model can never sustain.

Yes, very true. It's also worth pointing out that passenger rail has virtually never been profitable, even when it was being run by for-profit companies. There was a historically short window of time when passenger rail was perceived to be a good investment (prior to the introduction of the automobile), but its profitability was often overestimated, railroads often went broke, and the passenger services that survived into the 20th century were heavily subsidized by freight operations. It was freight service that paid for the infrastructure; passenger service was equal parts prestige, public relations, and a requirement of the Federal and state regulators.

Unfortunately, we've now reached the point where it doesn't make sense to have freight and passenger service on the same physical track. Freight requires rights of way designed for heavy loads at relatively low speed; high-speed passenger requires carefully banked and graded rights of way, which don't have to tolerate a lot of weight (provided your passenger trains don't need to be designed to survive a head-on collision with a freight train, which the Acela does and comparable European and Japanese trains don't).

But we're still using the freight railroads to maintain a lot of the underlying track infrastructure. Even on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak doesn't own some of the track; it either leases or has sharing agreements with the freight railroads that actually do. These railroads are very good at moving freight (and quite profitable, despite being at an obvious disadvantage to trucking companies who get their infrastructure maintained by the public), but have little interest in making the sorts of improvements necessary for HSR.

The single best thing that could be done for passenger rail in the US would be to split Amtrak into two organizations, with separate funding sources: an infrastructure-maintenance organization, funded out of the Highway Trust Fund just like the Interstates, and the rolling-stock and passenger operations organization, which would be responsible for the trains and stations, and funded from ticket sales and state funding for specific services (e.g. subsidized services like the Vermonter). In return, the trains would have to use taxed diesel rather than their current untaxed fuel.

If you did that, I think you'd end up with something that would be both responsive to passenger needs -- it wouldn't be wholly independent from ticket sales and immune to market forces -- but also on a reasonably level playing field with other services that take advantage of publicly-funded infrastructure.

Of course, it'll never happen, but a man can dream...
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2012 [17 favorites]


We could, and should just replace our megahighways with high speed rail corridors. But we won't.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't get why people are so down on rail.

Because it seems like a throwback to a previous era. The automobile and the highway system promised Americans an inifinite amount of freedome to travel that reshaped our entire culture. Rail travel was the old way, that limits you to specific destinations chosen by someone else. With a car, we can go whereever we please.

Now, granted with air travel we have traded independence for speed, but with rail travel there is not yet the compensation of speed to make up for being forced to go where the train takes you.

Personally, I love rail travel and remain frustrated and saddened that Amtrak doesn't go south. I would love a line from St. Louis to Nashville or Knoxville so I could visit my family cheaply and not have to drive.
posted by teleri025 at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2012


An immobile populace is more easily exploited by mobile capital.
posted by aramaic at 9:12 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why would I take a slow train (x2 as driving) if I have to rent a car when I get to my destination because there is limited mass transit (or the mass transit doesn't extend to where I need to be)?

Well, I don't know why you'd do that. But if, once the system is actually built, you find yourself on the west coast traveling between SF and LA, I'm guessing you'd rather take HSR than drive. Mainly because driving takes over twice as long...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:15 AM on July 10, 2012


A lot of talk over something that is never actually going to exist.

High speed rail is definitely going to exist, and relatively soon in some places. Amtrak expects to test high speed trains on the Chicago-St. Louis line this fall. They are working on the track right now, as I type.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pogo_Fuzzybutt: Clearly, trains spread communism.

Now that you mention it...

Most Americans only learn about The Great War from the American perspective. From this perspective, I looks like the German Empire was a diplomatic buffoon (the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram which was an attempt to urge Mexico into invading the US and regain the land lost in the Mexican-American War -- which was absurd considering Mexico was in the middle of a Civil War). But Germany allowing Lenin passage to Russia in 1917 was perhaps the most effective move of espionage (intentional or not) in world history.

Sorry for the history derail.
posted by Groundhog Week at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know anything about the economics or politics of rail, but I recently took an Amtrak train to New Orleans and back. It was such a pleasant, convenient, and affordable experience that I can safely say I will never travel there by any other means. It was just so... civilized. No huge lines. No interminable waits. Friendly people. The opportunity to eat and drink and stand up and walk around. Plenty of legroom. Power outlets to recharge my electronics. All at what it would cost me to drive and park. My only complaint was that the train left New Orleans at some ungodly hour, like 7 AM. Nothing in New Orleans should happen at 7 AM. Ugh.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


To me, rail feels like independence. Walking out my front door, getting on a train and getting whisked off to wherever I'm going feels more "free" than sitting in traffic. I realize this isn't the dominant metaphor here and the "cars are freedom" thing is really entrenched — especially for people who have never lived in a place with a really decent rail system. But that set of attitudes could be changed.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:18 AM on July 10, 2012 [12 favorites]


[vindaloo] The key metric for all railways in North America is the operating ratio, and passenger rail is not a good performer in that respect. French, German and Japanese railways are all heavily subsidized, they have an operating-ratio of 1.5 to 2 (meaning for every dollar they earn they spend $1.5 to $2). To maintain tracks for 200 mph or faster traffic requires a staggering amount of operating dollars, which a for-profit model can never sustain.
[You Can't Tip a Buick] The comparable high-speed rail systems in France and Spain run operational surpluses — once they're built, these suckers turn a profit.
So, which is it?
posted by b1tr0t at 9:19 AM on July 10, 2012


Nothing in New Orleans should happen at 7 AM. Ugh.

Clearly, you weren't going to the right bars.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:21 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?

Depends on the bus, and when you want to go etc.

I took a train over the past weekend from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, IL. My final destination was Bloomington, IL, but because of the work on the line I mentioned in my previous comment buses were substituted for the trains. So I took a different train line and has a ride pick me up.

Anyway. A one way ticket on the bus to Bloomington would have cost me $38.00. For the one way train ticket to Champaign, I paid, no kidding, $19.00. Interestingly Champaign is a bit further from Chicago than Bloomington.

So the train can be cheaper. It's certainly less annoying.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:21 AM on July 10, 2012


I do like the above the rails/on the rails concept. We pay for the tracks with our tax dollars and we pay for the train ride with our own money - just like we pay for highways with taxes and buy our own cars/pay our own bus fares. Perhaps if the debate were framed this way there would be lots more support (among sane people, anyway). This is a utility; a public good.
posted by moammargaret at 9:22 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I ask you this: given the infrastructure that the US is biased towards roads, would a better solution be upgrading our roads to support autonomous electric cars? Start with a single lane each way, where you drive to the entrance and then the autonomous systems takes over and merges you into the fast lane.
No - because autonomous cars have vastly more moving parts than a rail line. High-speed rail technology already exists and is clearly safe. Autonomous cars are only at the very early R&D stage now. Even if they do pan out, you'd want to use them for local travel and high speed rail for long-haul routes.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Gateway project (adding 2 new tracks into NYC from NJ) needs to be the next big project in their crosshairs. The current two tracks into Penn Station are possibly the busiest segments of heavy rail in the world in terms of passenger volume, and additional capacity and redundancy are desperately needed.

Except that the last tunnel proposal (mothballed by Chris Christie) provides neither redundancy nor extra capacity through Penn Station, eschewing both in favor of a completely separate line that dead-ends next to Penn Station.

The only silver lining in its cancellation is the fact that we still have the chance to do it right.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2012


Why would I take a slow train (x2 as driving) if I have to rent a car when I get to my destination because there is limited mass transit (or the mass transit doesn't extend to where I need to be)?

For what plausible route in the Midwest is Amtrak twice as slow as driving?
posted by enn at 9:25 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I love the train! It is awesome. I have always wanted to take a traincation out west, to see the desert. Unfortunately, I live in [far] eastern Virginia, and how Amtrak is set up now, I'd either have to go all the way up to Chicago, or all the way down to New Orleans, and then west.
How 'bout we can this NEC crap, and just fund my dream train route? That sounds like a great plan!
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:27 AM on July 10, 2012


For what plausible route in the Midwest is Amtrak twice as slow as driving?

From Chicago to Lafayette, IN. I took that train 4 times while I was living in Chicago. The trip never took less than 4 hours. I've driven it in under 2 hours.
posted by nolnacs at 9:28 AM on July 10, 2012


Also they really need to look into revising the Omaha-Topeka-Istanbul corridor.
posted by griphus at 9:31 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


For what plausible route in the Midwest is Amtrak twice as slow as driving?

There are a lot of 'em, just because of how the routes are set up.

It's more of the mid-South than the Midwest, but how about Little Rock to Memphis? Two hours or so in a car, but Amtrak's route goes via Chicago.
posted by box at 9:33 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the genesis of the Interstate Highway System began back under Roosevelt.

Eisenhower had the first inkling of how bad it was when, in 1919, he was part of the Army's first Transcontinential Motor Convoy, using the Lincoln Highway to get from Gettysburg, PA to San Francisco, CA. The convoy used local roads to get to Gettyburg from Washington DC. They left on July 7th, 1919. It took two months to get to San Francisco -- they arrived on September 6th of that year. Average speed was 5.7 miles per hour.

Then he got to Germany in WWII and saw the Autobahn. People talked about how better highways would be nice, but Ike saw *exactly* how much more than nice they really were -- they were, amongst other things, a tremendous strategic advantage to a country in getting hardware from X to Y, and he saw a much better system, so he had an idea on how to do it. After the war, he almost retired from politics, and though he was given an offer to join Truman's ticket, he decided again, and thinking that Dewey would get two terms, and then he'd be 66, that he'd just passed up his chance. Instead, he became president of Columbia University and NATO supreme commander.

However, then SCOTUS overturned the manda...I mean Dewey Defeated....Err Truman, somehow, won. The 22nd Amendment was passed in 1951, which limited presidential terms. Even though Truman was grandfathered in, he chose to abide by it*, the GOP started the "Draft Ike" campaign, and he won. One of the first bills he started campaigning for with the Congress was the National Highway Defense Act. The only reason it didn't pass faster was the bill stalled in how to fund it -- federal bonds? State bonds? Some combination?

Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt were big fans of "highways" -- paved two lanes designated routes. Calvin Coolidge's administration saw the creation of the US Numbered Highway System, and both Hoover and Roosevelt spent a great deal of effort helping the states expand the network. Roosevelt and Truman did support the nascent turnpike movement, which created the core of the Interstate network in the Northeast, but it really was Eisenhower who, between understanding how hard movement of vehicles across the nation was, even with the US Highway Network, and saw how much more effective the German divided highways were.

* After Truman's second term, you can't blame him -- NATO was formed, the Chinese Civil War happened, leading to the ROC/PRC spilt, Joe McCarthy was at his height, the Korean War started, the 1952 steel strike happened, someone tried to kill him, he basically had to order the entire White House rebuilt after the start of minor renovations reveled that the damn thing was about to fall over -- his own bedroom and bathroom were closed because the floor started to collapse. And, over all of that, he had to deal with, and ultimately relieve Douglas MacArthur.

I'd want out after that, too.
posted by eriko at 9:37 AM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


The fancy new 10 billion toll highway

There's nothing "fancy" about toll highways. They're just regular old highways like we used to let people use in the public interest, only now with extra profit generating mechanisms built in for the private sector.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:39 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


For what plausible route in the Midwest is Amtrak twice as slow as driving?

On too many occasions, St. Louis to Chicago -- though there have been substantial efforts to improve the track quality. For many years, between the lousy track and the fact that Amtrak trains were secondary users of the lines, it was often a 9-10 trip compared to scheduled.

Cross Country trains being 17-24 hours late were, and from what I can tell, still are common. On the NE Corridor, where Amtrak owns and maintains the vast majority of the line, they are much more timely.

They're just regular old highways like we used to let people use in the public interest.

The first divided highways in the US were toll -- the NE turnpikes. For years, this was considered proper. It wasn't until the Interstates started in 1956 that the idea of the Feds spending money to build highways for the states was considered proper.

I have said it before, and I will say it again. Public transit and rail transit has a right to have just as much subsidy as roads and air. Either all get massive public subsidy (like the roads and air do now) or none of them do.

And, for the record, I am *very much more* massive public subsidy for road, air travel, rail and urban public transport. People and things moving drive the economy.
posted by eriko at 9:44 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I usually took a Greyhound to Montreal when I used to go there as a teenager. Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?

Probably not (never made that trip), but it's going to be faster.

I use Amtrak for pretty much all my trips on the East coast that are north of DC. That's about the limit where the train is about as fast as flying, once you take into account getting to the airport, waiting around, etc. It's also usually less expensive (esp counting cab rides to the airport), and it is always more pleasant. I could go by bus, which would be cheaper, but it take a lot longer and is way more likely to require changing buses, which adds onto the time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2012


What can I say, I'm an engineer, I look for technical solutions.

But apparently not a civil engineer.

Under no circumstances would it be cheaper to convert an existing plain slab of concrete into a science fiction-like autonomous highway than to buy a 200' width strip of land and build a railroad.
posted by hwyengr at 9:52 AM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


griphus: "Also, who is down on rail?

Outside of our esteemed congressmen and women, of course.
"

The idiots who vote those esteemed congresscritters (and *ahem* governors (fuck you, Walker)) into power.
posted by symbioid at 9:54 AM on July 10, 2012


Amtrak expects to test high speed trains on the Chicago-St. Louis line this fall. They are working on the track right now, as I type.

Well, if you call 110mph high speed. :-/ And the initial test segment will only be from Dwight to Pontiac, but they are working on a lot more track, and they do have a plan to try to change this route to a four track line to allow high speed trains to pass others.

It's certainly faster than the "65" mph (read, 75mph) on I-55, or the typical 80mph limit of the Class 4 track that used to be in place between Chicago and St. Louis. However, that train almost always was stuck behind a freight, which was limited to 60mph on Class 4 track.

Just the new reliable track will help -- parts of that line were in very bad shape. Class 6 track is limited to 110mph for both freight and passenger, but the real speed limits will be with the stops and with freights that *can't* go 110mph. And, since the freight companies own the track, they get to do that.

Because of this, two of the five daily Chicago-St. Louis trains will run at 80mph or so, but they are planning three to run 110mph once the line is upgraded. It is a significant improvement, and put Chicago Union to St. Louis in 3:30 into the realm of possibility, provided they don't make too many stops.

Parts of the NE Corridior are Class 7 (125mph, both pax and freight) and parts are class 8 (160mph, both.) There is a theoretical class 9 (200mph) and class 10 (specified, faster than 200mph) but none currently exist.
posted by eriko at 10:00 AM on July 10, 2012


I keep trying to make the train from New Jersey to Indianapolis make sense for the trip to a convention I make each year, and it just doesn't quite stretch that way. It's a hair over 24 hours (assuming everything runs on time) with a changeover in Washington and return trains only run every other day, if that often. Driving is about 12 hours. Flying is a bit over two hours in the air and three or so additional transit time (to/from the airports, security, etc.). So, 6 hours to fly, 12 to drive, and 24 to take the train, and the train is the priciest option of the bunch.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:01 AM on July 10, 2012


Under no circumstances would it be cheaper to convert an existing plain slab of concrete into a science fiction-like autonomous highway than to buy a 200' width strip of land and build a railroad.

Wow. That is not close to true.
posted by BeeDo at 10:03 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing that's great about trains, is they tend to drop you off in city centers, while airports are often on the outskirts of town requiring connecting transportation. I think this feature is often lost on a lot of US commuters, especially if they live in suburbs.
posted by floam at 10:04 AM on July 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


Those wondering how high speed could possibly work, see this page. The only route on there that air can compete with is Chicago-KC in 4 hours, and you sort of need to know how to get through airports very fast to pull that off. Downtown Chicago to Downtown St. Louis, Detroit or Cincy in under two hours, Cleveland in 2:15, and MSP in 2:40 is definitely a winner.


Cross country trains will never beat planes, but on the West Coast and east of the Mississippi, the ranges between cities are more than workable -- indeed, they become a more compelling argument between train and car when you're moving 250 miles, rather than 100 miles. 40 minutes to Milwaukee looks good, until you consider time to get to stations, then the 1:40 of the drive is still competitive, even if you assume only 20 minutes at each end. But compared to the over 5 hours to STL or Cincy? Easy win. Heck, that's short enough to go to a game and get back the same night.
posted by eriko at 10:07 AM on July 10, 2012


Wow. That is not close to true.

It isn't? The system you're proposing doesn't exist. The R&D costs would be staggering. You would have to buy a new car, or pay to have your existing car converted. If every single car isn't on the autonomous network, the traffic flow benefits are eliminated. If you just want to do an individual lane, then you're removing capacity from the highway that non-autonomous cars were previously occupying.

And then there's the liability costs...
posted by hwyengr at 10:12 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'd just like to take a moment to thank those GOP governors who turned down federal transportation infrastructure funding in their own states for helping to make these projects possible.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:13 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Under no circumstances would it be cheaper to convert an existing plain slab of concrete into a science fiction-like autonomous highway than to buy a 200' width strip of land and build a railroad.

Even if the autonomous car technology gets invented by private companies at no taxpayer expense and works well enough that nothing has to be changed about the existing road infrastructure? And it adds only a small marginal cost to each new vehicle?

Google's autonomous car is extremely good, likely on par with human drivers: 160,000 miles on open roads with one minor accident, and that blamed on operator error. As more cars become autonomous, one would expect even better results because the cars could communicate directly in addition to using sensor inputs (e.g. behavior at intersections and merge lanes could be coordinated explicitly rather than relying solely on observation and rule-following assumptions).

Now, personally I would prefer high speed rail between cities, mass transit within cities, and autonomous cars for routes unserved by rail. And I'll keep voting with that in mind. But if I were a betting man I would bet that in 25 years there will be more passenger miles spent in autonomous cars than on high speed rail.
posted by jedicus at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Give me a sec. Gotta get somewhere I can type.
posted by BeeDo at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2012


What can I say, I'm an engineer, I look for technical solutions.


The point of high speed rail is that it is much faster than driving. How are these autonomous cars and highways going to function at 140+ mph? Keep in mind that switching to electricity isn't a magic bullet; electricity has to some from somewhere, mostly dirty, dangerous coal. So we want to use the electricity very efficiently. As an engineer, I'm sure you're familiar with drag; the most efficient way to reduce the effects of drag would be to have dozens of cars, all very close to each other, so each car is riding in the slipstream of the previous one. (For safety - autonomous technology isn't perfect - it would be best if the cars were mechanically connected, so they couldn't crash into each other as they roar through the countryside at high velocities, while inches apart.)

And as an engineer, I'm sure you're familiar with rolling resistance as well. A great way to cut this down is to switch from tires on asphalt or concrete (coefficients from 0.01-0.03) to steel wheels on a steel surface, where the coefficient is 0.001; an order of magnitude smaller. (These high speed autonomous vehicles wouldn't really be safe in mixed traffic, so there would need to be a separate right of way - of course, since they are much more efficient, you would probably only need one lane in each direction). And, of course, as you go faster, the energy requirements increase - which makes batteries impractical; it would be nice to have an external source of electrical power.

So to make these high-speed autonomous electric car facilities even slightly efficient, all we need are a bunch of cars in a very closely spaced distance, ideally travelling with steel wheels on some sort of steel surface and drawing their power from an external source. Gosh, what technical solution does that sound like?
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:23 AM on July 10, 2012 [22 favorites]


[vindaloo] The key metric for all railways in North America is the operating ratio, and passenger rail is not a good performer in that respect. French, German and Japanese railways are all heavily subsidized, they have an operating-ratio of 1.5 to 2 (meaning for every dollar they earn they spend $1.5 to $2). To maintain tracks for 200 mph or faster traffic requires a staggering amount of operating dollars, which a for-profit model can never sustain.
[You Can't Tip a Buick] The comparable high-speed rail systems in France and Spain run operational surpluses — once they're built, these suckers turn a profit.
So, which is it?


vindaloo. those numbers YCTAB is looking at are just the operating companies, not the infrastructure companies. ADIF in Spain owns the network. RFF owns the French network. Both get quite large subsidies - as they should. To claim high-speed rail breaks even isn't the best way to make the argument. It gets cars off the road, planes out the air. Decreases congestion and a whole heap of other secondary positive effects. As someone said above, no one pays the full and direct cost of roads through gas taxes, why should we expect fares to pay the full cost of mass transit.

RFF Annual

ADIF Annual
posted by JPD at 10:23 AM on July 10, 2012


The R&D costs would be staggering

Google's already done the heavy lifting.

You would have to buy a new car, or pay to have your existing car converted.

5.5 million cars are sold in the US every year, and the median age of cars in the US is a little under 10 years. If the marginal cost is small then the conversion will be nearly complete in about 20 years.

If every single car isn't on the autonomous network, the traffic flow benefits are eliminated

"Autonomous network" is a contradiction. The cars are completely independent, though they could also coordinate directly. There's no inherent reason why every car has to be autonomous in order for traffic flow to improve. The more autonomous cars there are the better the result, but it doesn't make much to make a substantial difference, even with only modest (i.e. not fully autonomous) technology. From research by Ford: "If one in four cars has Traffic Jam Assist or similar self-driving technologies, travel times are reduced by 37.5% and delays are reduced by 20%."

And then there's the liability costs...

What liability costs? Google's research shows that autonomous cars are at least as safe as human drivers and are only going to improve, whereas humans are unlikely to get much safer. And think about the massive safety improvement from essentially eliminating drunk driving, not to mention improving the relative safety of many classes of driver (e.g. young, old, inexperienced, vision or hearing impaired).

And if that's not enough, then I'll point out that it is possible to write essentially bug-free code. It is extremely time-consuming and laborious, but it can be done. Consider, for example, the software that ran the Space Shuttle. The same approach can be taken with the autonomous car software.
posted by jedicus at 10:25 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Good lord, let someone else debug the autonomous car gadgetbahn — if private industry wants to play around with it, it can, but the state has no businesses wasting time and money on it, any more than it does futzing around with any other personal-rapid-transit scheme.

There is extant technology that's perfectly suited for people making middle-distance trips like LA-SF. Unlike autonomous car schemes, this technology isn't new — it hasn't been anywhere near the cutting edge for decades. This is a good thing. Using tested, off-the-shelf equipment is almost unimaginably cheaper and more efficient than, well, designing a new category of transportation altogether.

I'm not sure I could be more pleased with what California's planning on building.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:29 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


The point of high speed rail is that it is much faster than driving. How are these autonomous cars and highways going to function at 140+ mph?

The point of the argument is not that autonomous cars will necessarily be faster (though over short distances they likely will be), but rather that they are more realistic in our political, cultural, and economic climate. An idealized network of high speed rail would be great, and I favor it, but I don't think that's what's going to happen in the US.

Keep in mind that switching to electricity isn't a magic bullet; electricity has to some from somewhere, mostly dirty, dangerous coal.

And the trains run on what, exactly? As I understand it many of them run on diesel and the rest run on electricity, sourced as you say from dirty, dangerous coal. But even so, coal plants are cleaner (and much easier to make cleaner yet) than internal combustion engines, so switching to electric cars ultimately powered by coal is likely to be an improvement of internal combustion engines.

if private industry wants to play around with it, it can, but the state has no businesses wasting time and money on it, any more than it does futzing around with any other personal-rapid-transit scheme.

I agree with you completely on that score, except perhaps to the extent that if/when the technology is proven (i.e. safer than human drivers) and readily available (i.e. in essentially all makes and models), then the state should probably subsidize replacing manual cars with autonomous ones, if only for safety reasons.
posted by jedicus at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2012


What about autonomous trains!?

Really. That's got to be a much easier problem to solve when you're on rails and not concerned with steering, and imagine all the cool stuff you could do with light rail transit and passenger rail with magnitudes cheaper operating costs.
posted by floam at 10:32 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Today, Amtrak unvelied its $151 billion plan (PDF) for the Northeast Corridor.

Finally! Yeah!
posted by ericb at 10:34 AM on July 10, 2012


The proposed high-speed rail line would travel at top speeds of 220 miles-per-hour in some sections and be able to deliver passengers from Washington, D.C. to Boston in a little over 3 hours.

Given the amount of time one spends in a cab, going through the security (theater), checking in and flight time, as well as possible delays) it will be more convenient and faster to take the train than to take the shuttle.
posted by ericb at 10:37 AM on July 10, 2012


floam: SkyTrain. It's awesome. A train runs every five minutes every single hour the system operates. Better service than just about any line in NYC, even though the city itself is no bigger than Seattle.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:41 AM on July 10, 2012


Keep in mind that switching to electricity isn't a magic bullet; electricity has to some from somewhere, mostly dirty, dangerous coal.

And the trains run on what, exactly? As I understand it many of them run on diesel and the rest run on electricity, sourced as you say from dirty, dangerous coal. But even so, coal plants are cleaner (and much easier to make cleaner yet) than internal combustion engines, so switching to electric cars ultimately powered by coal is likely to be an improvement of internal combustion engines.


California gets a huge amount of its power from hydroelectric and (to a lesser extent) wind. The "the power is coming from coal plants, ultimately!" argument doesn't apply here.

(and I'm not sure the argument applies even for places that do get most of their energy from dirty sources. does anyone have figures on the amount of energy used per passenger mile for rail vs. planes/private automobiles? I have to imagine that rail beats planes handily, at least).
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:45 AM on July 10, 2012


In general, "public roads" in US are not subsidized, they are fully paid for plus by fuel taxes. The excess is siphoned off to subsidize money pit mass transit. The US road system should be perfect and #1 in quality in the world. We already pay enough in fuel taxes for that.

In the US, poor people don't take MARC or high speed rail. Both (or it) is another government subsidized silent promotion of "white flight". (Or should I say "class flight" here in 2012 on Metafilter?)

For the "much faster than driving" crowd - who cares, who really cares? And, why should drivers subsidize it? How many people need to go from DC to Boston at all? Why should workaday drivers subsidize some politico or business hot shot to save time for him? And save what, 1 hour? 2 hours? PSHAW.

Your government subsidized (taxpayer subsidized) mass transit costs 2x - 5x the fare cost. Would you pay the full amount yourself without taxpayer subsidy (aka welfare)? No? Why, then, should taxpayers who don't use it?

And if you would pay the full cost, be my guest.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:46 AM on July 10, 2012


Not to pick on BitterOldPunk, but his example illustrates the waste of Amtrak.

I don't know anything about the economics or politics of rail, but I recently took an Amtrak train to New Orleans and back. It was such a pleasant, convenient, and affordable experience that I can safely say I will never travel there by any other means. It was just so... civilized. No huge lines. No interminable waits. Friendly people. The opportunity to eat and drink and stand up and walk around. Plenty of legroom. Power outlets to recharge my electronics. All at what it would cost me to drive and park. My only complaint was that the train left New Orleans at some ungodly hour, like 7 AM. Nothing in New Orleans should happen at 7 AM. Ugh.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:18 AM on July 10 [+] [!]


While I'm sure the ride was pleasant and convenient, lots of people have a problem funding others pleasure and convenience. The ride was affordable because subsidies paid for $110 of the cost (using 2008 numbers, but likely essentially the same for any other recent year.) A one-way ticket along the same route a month from now costs $147 to purchase. Add the $110 subsidy and the cost of the pleasure and convenience is $257.

Maybe less pleasurable and convenient, but a one-way airline ticket on the same date can be bought for $177. Never mind that there were no huge lines or waits because very few people want to travel from Chicago to New Orleans by train even if the government is willing to pay you $110 to do it.
posted by otto42 at 10:47 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never once had a chance to take Amtrak, and I really, really want to.
June 26, 2011: Amtrak Ridership Growth A Sign Of Cultural Shift?

October 13, 2011: Amtrak Ridership Rolls Up Best-Ever Records. [PDF]

April 11, 2012: Amtrak On Pace to Set New Ridership Record. [PDF]

July 10, 2012: Amtrak's Downeaster Sets Another Ridership Record.
I rarely take the shuttle (Boston - New York) anymore. It's not worth the hassle. And, it's comfortable on the Acela ... and you also save time on both ends of the trip because you go right from the city center-to-city center.
posted by ericb at 10:52 AM on July 10, 2012


I love rail and was very much pro the California HSR project. I spent years talking it up. I have changed my mind.

First of all, the projected costs doubled in the short time since voters passed the bond. they have since been revised downward (along with some expectations for the service) to $68 bn, but everyone suspects they'll go back up again. If you're asking voters to cough up that kind of money, then you have an obligation to be super-cautious about the assumptions going into your financial projections. Some variation is inevitable, but seeing projected costs double within

Second, the timeframe is absurd - from now until 2020 just to get the existing train line between SF and San Jose electrified? Seriously - land that Caltrain already owns and which won't require the full panoply of environmental review etc., because there are already trains running. By comparison, BART is expected to be carrying passengers to San Jose by 2016. And given the way Caltrain runs now, I'm not that optimistic about the future. A few months ago I had to get to Palo Alto by 8am on a Saturday morning. Turns out the first Caltrain train doesn't leave SF until 8:30am, so I ended up taking BART to Fremont and paying $50 for a cab across the Dumbarton Bridge. I want to love my local train service, but when it doesn't run I can't use it. Even on weekdays, most people don't have the patience for the 1-hour off-peak intervals.

The overall timeframe for completion is now 2034. When the voter initiative passed, it was supposed to be 2020. What the fuck? We're in the 21st century and you need 22 fucking years to build a railway that won't even be operable at high speed for most of its length? FAIL.

This project is going to die, and die hard. That's why California has already given approval for self-driving cars in the state. Computer-controlled road trains are the future, will reduce accidents and fuel consumption, provide door-to-door service, and the benefits will be far more evenly distributed (economically and geographically) than high speed rail. We're also building an electric vehicle charging infrastructure using settlement money from electricity price-fixing lawsuits. HSR is a dead duck.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


High-speed rail is NOT profitable

Neither are sidewalks and sewage systems. Should we stop building those?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 11:00 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actually it looks like jedicus said almost everything I was going to say. Great minds.

I'll just add a few things:

1. Door to door time is the correct metric, not train speed. Of course I'm not suggesting the cars would be as fast on the road as a high speed train. But they would be pretty fast, and would really close the gap up to airplanes.

2. Current research into autonomous vehicles is to get them to function on normal roads. Getting them to drive on what would be a separate lane just for them is no longer a difficult task. Neither would be providing them power. Neither are electric vehicles, except for power storage, which is not an issue in this application.

3. As the California example shows, rail is only cheap when you are putting tracks from where no one is to where no one wants to be. Otherwise buying that 200 feet of land is very expensive. For better or worse, the US government already ripped apart cities when they build the Interstate system. I don't want to pay to do it again. And to head off one reply at the pass, no you can't just use existing rail corridors for high speed rail. Typically, the corners are too tight for the higher speed trains (unless you do something wild like that British thing they tried with the tilting train cars).

4. It is just and proper to debate whether tax payers should pay for a new system. I just wonder, out of all the corporate subsidies there are, who would really pick this hill to make a stand on?

5. Finally, I say this every time I can: Even if the electricity came from coal, it would still be a net win if fossil fuel vehicles were replaced with electric. Just think how much gunge in cities is deposited partially burned hydrocarbons. All that runs off somewhere, and it is a lot worse than what comes from a power plant.
posted by BeeDo at 11:02 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some variation is inevitable, but seeing projected costs double within ...three years of passing proposition 1a is just not acceptable. When I read that total projected costs had gone up from $43 to $98 billion and the completion date had slipped by 13 years, I threw up in my mouth a little. That is not what Californians were sold and voted for.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:03 AM on July 10, 2012


In general, "public roads" in US are not subsidized, they are fully paid for plus by fuel taxes.


No this is not correct.

Federal roads are paid for by the Federal Fuel tax (mostly) but that's a small proportion of total lanes. State fuel taxes generally do not cover the cost of maintaining the road infrastructure. Hell most states don't even specifically allocate Fuel Tax revenues to directly support roads.

I don't have a problem with roads being subsidized either though.

I know this is totally a biased source, but page 17 has a nice chart and a more reasonable source in the footnotes.
posted by JPD at 11:03 AM on July 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


SkyTrain is very interesting. You know, if I imagined someone pitching converting my town's (Portland, OR) light rail system to something autonomous, I have a feeling the transit union would be a serious roadblock. And the Taxi companies wouldn't like the idea of all-night transit.

In general, "public roads" in US are not subsidized, they are fully paid for plus by fuel taxes. The excess is siphoned off to subsidize money pit mass transit. The US road system should be perfect and #1 in quality in the world. We already pay enough in fuel taxes for that.

This is a myth. Gas taxes don't even come close to paying for road infrastructure. Freeways and automobile-centric development practices are highly subsidized in the US in all sorts of direct and indirect ways. You need to consider everything from actual road and freeway construction/maintenance costs, to things like land-use policies that require providing a certain number of parking spaces per square foot of commercial floorspace, to taxpayer-funded private property storage in the public right of way (free parking on streets), to mortgage tax deductions.
posted by floam at 11:04 AM on July 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


one more dead town's last parade: "Except that the last tunnel proposal (mothballed by Chris Christie) provides neither redundancy nor extra capacity through Penn Station, eschewing both in favor of a completely separate line that dead-ends next to Penn Station.

The only silver lining in its cancellation is the fact that we still have the chance to do it right.
"

Christie didn't mothball the project. He cancelled it outright, and then tried to keep the federal funds that the state had been awarded to build the thing.

Amtrak attempted to purchase some of the engineering work that New Jersey had done for the tunnel, but balked due to the governor's posturing, told him to fuck off, and walked away entirely. The Gateway Project will be a completely new thing, and is already aiming to compensate for many of ARC's inexplicable shortcomings.

They're still hashing out the details, but the proposed project (which is far from perfect, but at least leaves room for improvement down the road) is going to be considerably better. Yes, it will still be a dead-end, but it will be a dead-end located directly adjacent to the current tracks and station, thus leaving room for an eventual connection to the East River tunnels (to all points North/East of NYC), and allowing for a more sensible station layout.

A lot of commuter service from New Jersey already dead-ends into NYP, and those trains can be routed onto the new dead-end tracks, freeing up a lot of the station's current through-running capacity for Amtrak to use. New York will also be a terminal for a bunch of Amtrak routes, and that's fine.
posted by schmod at 11:09 AM on July 10, 2012


And the trains run on what, exactly?
The point is that the trains use the electricity more efficiently, which is why I used the word efficient twice and listed in technical detail major sources of energy inefficiency in cars.

What liability costs? Google's research shows that autonomous cars are at least as safe as human drivers and are only going to improve, whereas humans are unlikely to get much safer.

I love this idea. Last year, 32,000 people were killed in cars in the US (and that's not counting pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars). Let's suppose Google makes cars 10 times safer than humans. Which would be a remarkable feat of engineering. The liability goes from 32,000 people killed, mostly in ones and twos, mostly due to individual driver error to three thousand people are killed every year and every single one of them is Google's fault. And it's likely that automated cars fail under different circumstances where humans would behave well, so it would be clearly the fault of the automated car.

A lot of folks seem to be obsessed with urban transportation problems and solutions; we are talking about interurban transportation here. These are very different markets with very different needs. Just to quickly talk about the cost side, the interurban transportation system in California will need substantial infrastructure spending, given population growth. It is cheaper to build high speed rail than it is to expand the airports and I-5 to handle the extra capacity. So it's not build the HSR or do nothing; it's build the HSR or spend 20% more expanding the existing systems.

The idea that a 50 year old technology already reliably serving something like a billion people in Europe and Asia is risky and impractical and magic robot cars from the future is the reliable, sensible, levelheaded way forward is so ridiculous I'm running out of adjectives.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:10 AM on July 10, 2012 [33 favorites]


Your government subsidized (taxpayer subsidized) mass transit costs 2x - 5x the fare cost. Would you pay the full amount yourself without taxpayer subsidy (aka welfare)? No? Why, then, should taxpayers who don't use it?

This is just silly when you consider that pretty much every major urban area in the country gets back less in Federal expenditures than we pay in taxes even after our "money pit" mass transit systems get subsidized.
posted by JPD at 11:10 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


High-speed rail is NOT profitable

Neither are sidewalks and sewage systems. Should we stop building those?


Actually, they usually are. I pay a surcharge on the water bill for sewer system upgrades, and I'm happy to do it. I pay property and sales taxes that help keep up the sidewalk, and local businesses pay taxes as well for the traffic that sidewalks bring to their doors. With most municipal infrastructure projects, the end costs are recognizably connected to the estimated costs, and the benefits are also quantifiable. The idea that public goods are automatically worth it no matter how much they cost is misplaced. I'm a big fan of infrastructure spending, but you still need to have fiscal controls, or else you get a lot of 'bridges to nowhere.' This has been a major problem in places like Japan, where large amounts of infrastructure that nobody uses have been built as a sop to construction companies and local voting blocs, to the detriment of both the public fisc and the environment.

A lot of people on the left are living in la-la land when it comes to fiscal matters. The money doesn't have to come directly back to the government in the form of road tolls or passenger ticket fees, but it does have to come back in terms of broadened tax base and increased economic activity, because the bonds need to be paid off with something. Just because you don't understand how to measure the economic costs and benefits doesn't mean that they needn't be measured.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:11 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


The idea that a 50 year old technology already reliably serving something like a billion people in Europe and Asia is risky and impractical and magic robot cars from the future is the reliable, sensible, levelheaded way forward is so ridiculous I'm running out of adjectives.

I'm from Europe. It's a fuck of a lot denser than California, and the governments have a lot more power to build infrastructure there because you don't have the same kind of adversarial legalistic system as in the US, where anybody and their dog can sue over the sufficiency of the environmental review, and where you don't have endless litigation between umpteen different layers of government.

As for magic robot cars from the future, they're already driving around public streets. For more discussion of why I think they'll work out just fine, see here.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:17 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


So on the one hand, I want to talk about how a bunch of 60s-70s era sprawl suburbs are running into problems because their tax bases actually can't pay for the maintenance and repair of basic infrastructure — and frequently it's specifically the water and sewer systems that they're running into problems with. But on the other hand, I'm legitimately baffled about why people think that adding the needed capacity for trips between SF and LA via airport and freeway expansion instead of HSR makes financial sense. I suspect it's because of how it's been reported in the press as a choice between a cost and doing nothing, rather than as a choice between different investments...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:22 AM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Part of the problem about rail travel in California is getting on a train in San Francisco and then arriving in San Diego, a town that is impossible to get around in without your own car.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:25 AM on July 10, 2012


Foam Pants: I suppose that's why no one ever flies between those two cities...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:27 AM on July 10, 2012


I love this idea. Last year, 32,000 people were killed in cars in the US (and that's not counting pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars). Let's suppose Google makes cars 10 times safer than humans. Which would be a remarkable feat of engineering. The liability goes from 32,000 people killed, mostly in ones and twos, mostly due to individual driver error to three thousand people are killed every year and every single one of them is Google's fault. And it's likely that automated cars fail under different circumstances where humans would behave well, so it would be clearly the fault of the automated car.

Not really a remarkable feat of engineering. For starters it would essentially eliminate drunk driving related accidents, so there's 10,000 of the fatalities off the top.

Anyway, you're presupposing that the same liability approach would be used. It's entirely possible to institute a regulatory regime that says "Everyone carries insurance. So long as the car and its software met certain regulations, the insurance pays, not the manufacturer. If the car was deficient in some way, then the manufacturer pays."

Under this scheme, insurance will be cheaper than it is today because the autonomous cars are safer than manual driving, so drivers will prefer to adopt autonomous cars. If there is evidence of deficiency (e.g. regulations not being met, statistics showing that a particular car or piece of software is unsafe), then the manufacturer can still be held accountable. There is a net benefit to society (safer cars) and individual drivers (cheaper insurance, safer cars).

It is cheaper to build high speed rail than it is to expand the airports and I-5 to handle the extra capacity.

Actually, we shouldn't expand the interstates. That only encourages people to drive more. We should be strategically paring back roadways to encourage people to live more densely, carpool, telecommute, use public transit, etc.

The idea that a 50 year old technology already reliably serving something like a billion people in Europe and Asia is risky and impractical and magic robot cars from the future is the reliable, sensible, levelheaded way forward is so ridiculous I'm running out of adjectives.

It's not magic and it's not from the future. The technology is here right now and, in piecemeal fashion (e.g. Cadillac's Super Cruise, Mercedes Active Lane Keeping Assist) it's already being introduced into cars you can buy today or in the next couple of years.

And it's not ridiculous because you're assuming that the same approach that is good for Europe (decades of investment in rail infrastructure, high fuel taxes, no large stretches of essentially empty land, stronger national governments) or Asia (very strong national government, enormous, densely-built cities, major movement toward urbanization, no large pre-existing investment in roads) is also good for the US (none of those things).
posted by jedicus at 11:27 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


The idea that a 50 year old technology already reliably serving something like a billion people in Europe and Asia is risky and impractical and magic robot cars from the future is the reliable, sensible, levelheaded way forward is so ridiculous I'm running out of adjectives.

Woe that I have only one favourite to give. For some reason transportation and techno-fantasy go hand in hand... decades of Popular Science covers are proof of that.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:31 AM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?
Of course it's not cheaper than the bus.
Amtrak NYC to Montreal, next Tuesday: $63. Greyhound: $84.
posted by Flunkie at 11:31 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Part of the problem about rail travel in California is getting on a train in San Francisco and then arriving in San Diego, a town that is impossible to get around in without your own car.

I don't have a car and usually travel by train. I manage just fine most of the time; local public transit systems keep (slowly) improving, and nowdays my phone can help me make all the transit connections that I need. Occasionally I have to settle for a taxi or so, but you really don't need a car to get around urban and semi-urban areas if you don't want one. You can also use a bicycle or rent a car at your destination if you're traveling outside cities.

On the other hand, I'd like to know how you get on a train from SF to SD, considering that I've usually had to take a bus across the Bay Bridge and then transfer to Amtrak in Emeryville. Now I live in Emeryville but I have to go SF and switch to Caltrain if I want to go down the Peninsula. However, I will be able to take BART to San Jose in 4 years, which represents progress. If it was up to me I'd just hand Caltrain over to BART and have it run in a big circle around the South Bay.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:33 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Individual magic robot cars exist. A network of magic robot cars is stupid expensive future tech that state and federal governments shouldn't waste money on. All of the costs of deploying this technology come after the proof of concept phase. The amount of money Google et al have already invested in this is a rounding error compared to the full cost of building a practical network.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:34 AM on July 10, 2012


The idea that a 50 year old technology already reliably serving something like a billion people in Europe and Asia is risky and impractical and magic robot cars from the future is the reliable, sensible, levelheaded way forward is so ridiculous I'm running out of adjectives.

Heh, there's always cromulent.

I say, if you're going to spend hundreds of billions on something, aim high. Today, there is no question that the train networks of Europe and Japan are the envy of the world. One day, they will be surpassed by something else. Perhaps 50 years from now, they will look at our electric road trains as we look at their high speed trains now.

Perhaps not. But also... perhaps.

Or even more perhaps, we have different approaches and one-size-fits-all does not make sense here. Just in case someone thinks I have a stake in this I don't, I freaking love trains.

For you guys talking about liability: did you miss the banking crisis? Or General Motors? Governments take on liability from companies and individuals when it is in the public's best interest to do so. (In theory. They also do it to make certain people rich, but that's corruption and a tangential issue.)
posted by BeeDo at 11:37 AM on July 10, 2012


For some reason transportation and techno-fantasy go hand in hand

Yes, techno-fantasy. Google's car has already driven over 160,000 miles on public roads. Nevada and soon California have regulatory regimes for autonomous vehicles, with Google's car already approved. Mercedes will sell you a car today that can stay in a lane and slow down in response to traffic. In a couple of years so will Cadillac and Ford. Multiple manufacturers already sell cars that will parallel park themselves. More and more cars have back up sensors and cameras, wrap-around cameras, blind-spot sensors, etc.

Semi-autonomous cars are already a commercial reality, they are becoming more autonomous and more common, and fully autonomous cars will likely be commercially available within a decade.

Yes, those Popular Science cars were laughable. But a few decades of Moore's Law, enormous improvements in sensor technology (e.g. LIDAR, the invention of the CCD), and basically the entire fields of machine learning and machine vision have changed all that.
posted by jedicus at 11:44 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Individual magic robot cars exist. A network of magic robot cars is stupid expensive future tech that state and federal governments shouldn't waste money on.

It's not magic, it's just technology, and I resent the use of the word 'magic' to imply that it the technology is somehow fantastic or unreal. As for a network of autonomous vehicles being stupid expensive future tech...bullshit. 100% pure USDA Grade A BULLSHIT. Wireless networking is well-established technology that we use every day. It's not that hard, and there's a lot of places where it will save lives, money and the environment. You and I could get into two cars right now and drive down the road after each other. We could set up an ad-hoc wifi network right now, and share our GPS readings in real time to calculate our positions relative to each other. I've done it for fun with friends just because it's interesting to play with GPS. No fancy equipment required, just two smartphones. There is nothing technologically remarkable needed. The only additional infrastructure that becomes desirable is more antennas for cellphone traffic, and heaven knows we need high speed wireless infrastructure in this country too. We can start rolling out this technology right now, and in fact we already are.

In other places of sufficient density, rail would be more efficient than any number of autonomous vehicles. That's great - I like rail too, and probably use it a lot more than most people in this thread because I have never owned a car. California is one place where autonomous vehicles may actually make more economic sense.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:48 AM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


The first divided highways in the US were toll -- the NE turnpikes. For years, this was considered proper.

Well, fair enough, but I don't consider it proper to go backwards now, especially in the way that places like my state have done--essentially converting public interstates to endless profit centers for political patronage. But that's a derail anyway.

I'm hopeful about these large public transportation programs. I just don't understand why they always end up being so badly mismanaged these days. It hurts the cause of public works generally when these things blow up spectacularly into politics.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:54 AM on July 10, 2012


A network of magic robot cars is stupid expensive future tech that state and federal governments shouldn't waste money on.

What network? Who is suggesting a top-down, centrally controlled network? What will happen is that we will have more and more autonomous cars on the road and eventually virtually no manual cars. Since they are autonomous there is no need for a network or centralized control system. They already work just fine in a mixed environment with manual vehicles, and it will only get better the more autonomous vehicles there are. There is no need for an instant switchover to pure autonomous vehicles.

All of the costs of deploying this technology come after the proof of concept phase.

The cost is only the marginal cost of adding the already-developed technology to new vehicles. It will be a luxury item at first (witness Cadillac and Mercedes being early adopters of lane keeping assist and super cruise), but there's little reason to think that it will stay expensive for long, since it's just computers and sensors (the software is essentially a fixed cost, not a marginal one). The prototype has about $30k worth of gear in it, but that's a one-off prototype using a lot of sensors that are not yet mass-market commodities (e.g. LIDAR). It also doesn't have the benefit of being built into the vehicle.
posted by jedicus at 11:54 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is Amtrak cheaper than the bus?
Of course it's not cheaper than the bus.
Amtrak NYC to Montreal, next Tuesday: $63. Greyhound: $84.



Amtrak Subsidy per passenger = $25.18. (per subsidyscope.org.)

Amtrak cost = $63 + $25.18 = $88.18

Greyhound = $84.00 (includes profit to Greyhound.)
posted by otto42 at 11:56 AM on July 10, 2012


In other places of sufficient density, rail would be more efficient than any number of autonomous vehicles. That's great - I like rail too, and probably use it a lot more than most people in this thread because I have never owned a car. California is one place where autonomous vehicles may actually make more economic sense.

This is, unfortunately, wikitruth rather than real numbers, but: over six million passengers travel between LA and SF by air every year. Maybe they all own cars at both ends...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:57 AM on July 10, 2012


And again, I agree that the government shouldn't be subsidizing the development of the technology, since there's plenty of profit motive already. The point is that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and autonomous cars are very, very good compared to high-speed rail, given the infrastructure, politics, culture, and economy we have in the United States.
posted by jedicus at 11:58 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, all the popular arguments against other forms of public transit apply equally to autonomous vehicles, too (in a nutshell, those are: "but it's not just your car, it's your freedom!"). Adoption of autonomous vehicle systems will be a tough sell when we can't even get people to buy less powerful cars because they like the feeling of driving more powerful cars so much. I'd love to see that tech take off, but I suspect the cultural and legal obstacles are going to be more challenging than expected.

I'm all for public subsidies of technologies with an obvious public interest benefit. That's just investment in infrastructure and the free market has never done that well.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:59 AM on July 10, 2012


Also keep in mind that Google's car is meant to be autonomous all the time, side streets and everything. What BeeDo has proposed would only require the cars to operate autonomously from the on-ramp to the exit. In most places, the high-speed autonomous car only lane would have to be on the far left where there aren't any on-ramps so it would mostly be a matter of getting on the highway from the on-ramp as normal, pulling up in the lane adjacent to autonomous lane and hitting a button the starts the autonomous merge procedure. The "car train" automatically opens a spot and your car moves over. An alarm goes off when you get close to your exit and you hit a button to get out of the autonomous lane.

Getting cars to do that autonomously should be much MUCH easier than giving them the ability to navigate side streets, deal with stop signs, stop lights, merging, kids chasing balls, etc.
posted by VTX at 12:01 PM on July 10, 2012


This is, unfortunately, wikitruth rather than real numbers, but: over six million passengers travel between LA and SF by air every year. Maybe they all own cars at both ends...

So what? Nobody is suggesting abandoning all rail. If you fly to SFO you can get on BART in the airport and be in SF or any large East Bay city in about an hour. I usually take bus or train to LA so I forget how long the airport bus takes, but you can get around LA by public transit as well in many cases. What is your point here?
posted by anigbrowl at 12:06 PM on July 10, 2012


Here's my attempt to distill the issue into almost-all-monosyllabic words:

Turning steel wheels on steel tracks is cheaper than turning rubber wheels on asphalt roads.

The tracks are cheaper to build than the roadway.
The vehicles are cheaper to produce than those on the road, because they last much, much, longer.
They are also cheaper to run, because they take far less fuel.

Why can't my countrymen understand this... Ghods..
posted by ocschwar at 12:08 PM on July 10, 2012 [9 favorites]


Adoption of autonomous vehicle systems will be a tough sell when we can't even get people to buy less powerful cars because they like the feeling of driving more powerful cars so much. I'd love to see that tech take off, but I suspect the cultural and legal obstacles are going to be more challenging than expected.

The legal obstacles are being removed, at least here in California because we'd like to be the home of the electric car. And of course we can persuade people to buy less powerful cars. Where I live there are people with muscle cars and low riders, but also lots of Priuses, 2-seater smart cars, VW beetles and what-all else. Now, you say I'll be able to get a car where I just punch in my destination and the car does the driving instead of me doing it? SIGN ME UP.

Besides, think of the implications for commercial vehicles like deliveries, cab service and so on. California is plenty large enough market to grow an industry all by itself. I bet $10 I'll be able to take a Johnny cab by the time Caltrain electrifies the train line from SF to San Jose.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:20 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's because there are lots of places (especially in the Midwest) where once you get off the train, you can't get ANYWHERE without a car. Having a car available when they get to their destination is imperative to many people when they travel. Yes, the train is cheaper, faster, and safer but I don't have a car on both ends. Autonomous cars (even if they're only autonomous on the freeway) gets me some of the benefits of rail while letting me keep all of the benefits of driving.

If I want to get from San Francisco to Sacramento and I can take the train, great. What if I want to get to some place another 30 miles past Sacramento? What if that city doesn't have public transportation? I'd have to drive.

Though if we had extra small cars that could get loaded on the train with me or something, that might work too.
posted by VTX at 12:22 PM on July 10, 2012


It's because there are lots of places (especially in the Midwest) where once you get off the train, you can't get ANYWHERE without a car.

Doesn't prevent airports from running in the Midwest.
posted by ocschwar at 12:26 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's because there are lots of places (especially in the Midwest) where once you get off the train, you can't get ANYWHERE without a car.

And yet, people fly to those cities. How does that work?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:27 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Turning steel wheels on steel tracks is cheaper than turning rubber wheels on asphalt roads.

A given.

The tracks are cheaper to build than the roadway.

But we already built the roads, and people are resistant to the large, up-front expenditures required to build the tracks, especially since we aren't going to simultaneously stop maintaining the roads in order to pay for it.

The vehicles are cheaper to produce than those on the road, because they last much, much, longer.
They are also cheaper to run, because they take far less fuel.


Doesn't matter if the tracks never get built in the first place.

Why can't my countrymen understand this... Ghods..

I understand it just fine, with the above caveats. Now here are a few other points:

Politically, huge parts of the US (geographically and demographically) aren't interested in investing in rail. They are interested in investing in cars (Cash for Clunkers passed the House 316-109). Autonomous cars don't require any upfront investment; it's entirely voluntary, optional, and marginal. Our infrastructure is mostly designed around cars, not trains. Our culture prefers cars to mass transit (and it's not just a class issue; very few people really enjoy flying, even those that can afford first class, whereas lots of people enjoy driving for its own sake).

I like trains. I want light rail and commuter rail and high speed rail all across the country. I want mass transit everywhere. And I vote that way. But autonomous cars are coming and they will eat high speed rail's lunch. Given that, I'm not sure investment in high speed rail should be a priority except in the areas where the infrastructure and culture already accommodate it.

Some day, when gas is $8-10/gallon, we will wish we had invested in mass transit during the era of cheap energy. Hopefully electric cars will be enough at that point, since path dependence probably means that we will never again have an opportunity to build a nationwide transportation system on the scale of the interstate highway system or an intercity rail network.
posted by jedicus at 12:28 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's because there are lots of places (especially in the Midwest) where once you get off the train, you can't get ANYWHERE without a car.

And yet, people fly to those cities. How does that work?


They have these little autonomous cars, painted yellow, that line up at the airport. You get in one, state your destination, and get driven there while you relax in the back seat.

Not sure how they solve the problem of mass transportation, though.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, huh. I wonder why that doesn't work for trains, too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


In general, "public roads" in US are not subsidized, they are fully paid for plus by fuel taxes.

This is incorrect.
Using Federal Highway Administration data, Subsidyscope calculated that in 2007, user fees accounted for 51 percent of all road funding—a 10 percent decline over the previous decade and the lowest level since the creation of the Federal Highway Trust Fund in 1957.

First of all, the projected costs doubled in the short time since voters passed the bond. they have since been revised downward (along with some expectations for the service) to $68 bn, but everyone suspects they'll go back up again.

Anigbrowl, I see you mentioned the increase in projected costs more than once. You do understand that a significant portion of the increase is due to an accounting change, right? When the bond measure passed, costs were stated in current dollars, and now projected costs are stated in year of expenditure dollars. It doesn't account for the entire increase, but it does cover a significant portion. ($53Billion in today's dollars equals $68Billion in YOE dollars.)

Keep in mind that the cost of doing nothing is not zero. Just maintaining the status quo is pretty darn expensive.
posted by ambrosia at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doesn't prevent airports from running in the Midwest.

It's mostly people flying from their home airport to somewhere else. Flying is also something that we do to get someplace that is too far to drive. Presumably, a high-speed rail line wouldn't be replacing airplanes (though in some places it would), in most places, it would try to replace three-hour car trips.
posted by VTX at 12:32 PM on July 10, 2012


If I want to get from San Francisco to Sacramento and I can take the train, great. What if I want to get to some place another 30 miles past Sacramento? What if that city doesn't have public transportation? I'd have to drive.

But that's the same thing as flying. Presumably there will be rental cars available to you just like at the airport. Besides, I usually expect the opposite problem: forced to figure out how to ditch a car when I've arrived.

Anyway, my prediction for autonomous cars will be algorithms exactly as greedy and flawed as human drivers, and an equivalent amount of frustration with sharing the road to having your hands on the wheel. Might as well attach them in a row, put them on rails and fill one with snacks and drinks. Maybe make them go 150 mph while you're at it.
posted by migurski at 12:36 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's my attempt to distill the issue into almost-all-monosyllabic words:

You were unsuccessful.
posted by BeeDo at 12:36 PM on July 10, 2012


High Speed Rail in California will absolutely be replacing airplanes flying between the Bay Area and the LA basin. Southwest alone has over 100 flights a day. Short hop plane travel is wildly inefficient- you use up a vast amount of fuel getting up to cruising altitude and barely stay there long enough to drink a cup of soda before descending again.

People arriving in LA by train will get around by exactly the same methods they use to get around when they arrive in LA by air.
posted by ambrosia at 12:37 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


>It's because there are lots of places (especially in the Midwest) where once you get off the train, you can't get ANYWHERE without a car.

And yet, people fly to those cities. How does that work?


In part because it takes several times longer to get there by train. Seriously. I can be door-to-door from my apartment in Fort Wayne, Indiana to anywhere on the East Coast in six hours, tops. Four if I play my cards right.

But Amtrak doesn't even stop in Fort Wayne, so I have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest train station. The train leaves at 9:45PM and I get in at 12:45PM the following day. With travel time from the train station, it's more like sixteen or seventeen hours. Three of those hours are spent in the station in Pittsburgh, so one could presumably take some of that time off if were were more frequent trains. But the train ride, alone, is over twelve hours. There's no way you're going to double the average speed of the train because it's going to make at least half a dozen stops between here and there. So you can maybe bring that down to nine hours. Adding destination time back in we're still at least ten to eleven hours, even with high speed rail.

I'll fly, thanks.
posted by valkyryn at 12:37 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


The tracks are cheaper to build than the roadway.

But we already built the roads, and people are resistant to the large, up-front expenditures required to build the tracks, especially since we aren't going to simultaneously stop maintaining the roads in order to pay for it.


Except those roads crumble down to dust within 10 years.

And we already have stopped maintaining the roads. We just haven't been confronted with the consequences yet.
posted by ocschwar at 12:41 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I'm saying is that people talk a lot about train replacing flying. I'm saying that a lot of people are resistant because they'll still have to fly to the places they want to go. If you currently fly between Sacramento and San Diego, great! The train should be the perfect answer there isn't much about difference between flying and taking the train.

For a lot of people, they'll still have to fly to travel to the places where they'll want to go. In those people's minds, trains are a replacement for driving. In that case, I'm giving up some mobility when I get to my destination or I have to pay for a cab/bus. If I'm getting off the train, going one place and then coming back and taking the train home, it's fine. If I need to go someplace, go a bunch of different places, and then come home, I'll drive.

But really, there is no reason why we can't have both autonomous cars and high-speed rail (and I'd like more light-rail too while we're at it). Autonomous cars shouldn't take a whole lot of investment from the government, they would mostly need to regulate to encourage it (specify and autonomous car only lane, for instance). If the safety aspect really pans out, they can just mandate it like they do for air bags and seat belts.
posted by VTX at 12:48 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


In part because it takes several times longer to get there by train.

Oh for the love of... this is a conversation about building faster rail infrastructure. Well, and it's a derail (no pun intended) about autonomous car technology, but, yeah. The problem you're observing is a real one, and one that HSR infrastructure fixes.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:49 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except those roads crumble down to dust within 10 years.

Are high speed rail tracks maintenance free?
posted by BeeDo at 12:49 PM on July 10, 2012


otto42: A round-trip ticket from Birmingham to New Orleans aboard Amtrak was $104. The journey took 7 and a half hours and left me a 5-minute, $10 cab ride from my hotel. I could've walked it if I'd wanted to. The cheapest flight I could find on Orbitz was $137, plus bag fees, plus tax. It takes four hours, assuming it's on time, and that doesn't include the hour waiting to board and the half-hour waiting to collect bags. I have no idea where the New Orleans airport is, but I assume it isn't walking distance to the Central Business District and French Quarter. To drive to New Orleans from Birmingham takes five and half hours, costs around $80-$100 in gas (round trip) and then there are the daily parking fees, which are anywhere from $15-$30 per day. And I'm not driving once I'm there, because, hey, it's New Orleans, I don't know my way around anywhere outside the Quarter and I'm gonna be drinking most of the time anyway.

So the train is a really good deal for me, financially and logistically.

That other God-fearin', hard-workin', 'Murrican taxpayers are subsidizing my pleasant, comfortable train trip bothers me not one whit, because I'm one of those taxpayers, too, and there's plenty of crap that gets funded with my tax dollars that I'd prefer didn't, but I also realize that's the price I pay for living in CIVILIZATION.

There are plenty of places where extending train travel doesn't make sense. I suspect HSR in California will be a massive boondoggle.

But in my specific case, Amtrak is the best way to get to where I want to go.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:49 PM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


I am certain that the six million passengers per year who fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles won't think of HSR as a replacement for their cars.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:50 PM on July 10, 2012


Well, and it's a derail (no pun intended) about autonomous car technology

Yep, this is one car wreck of a train thread.
posted by BeeDo at 12:52 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


> So, which is it? [in re to whether European HSR is profitable or not]

The Europeans (at least in France, not sure about Germany) typically have their rail systems split up basically in the way I described in my earlier comment, with one entity to maintain the rights of way and another to operate the trains and station facilities. What I suspect is causing the difference in apparent profitability is that the unprofitable side is either an actual government agency or heavily subsidized, while the above-the-tracks "railroad" is made to look profitable by virtue of not having to pay for the tracks.

This is an entirely sane way to do things, since it's basically how trucks, bus companies, and airlines operate.

We don't make bus companies or truckers pay for the Interstate highways that they drive on, except very indirectly (and incompletely) through fuel taxes and the occasional toll. We don't make the airlines pay for the FAA or the air-traffic control infrastructure that lets them fly around safely. But yet as a country, we apparently expect Amtrak (and regional commuter rail companies) to pay for the rights of way, track maintenance, signals and train control systems, the trains and rolling stock, the stations, and everything else all by themselves.

It's insanity, and pretty much explains in a nutshell why we can't have a nice rail network. Honestly I'm surprised that Amtrak even does as well as it does; it's a testament to the inherent efficiencies of rail (and the tremendous sums that were invested in the past) that we have any passenger rail service at all, given the disadvantage it is at and the subsidization of other, competing forms of transportation.

The first divided highways in the US were toll -- the NE turnpikes. For years, this was considered proper. It wasn't until the Interstates started in 1956 that the idea of the Feds spending money to build highways for the states was considered proper.

Well, just to be a little nitpicky: most of those original turnpikes were gone long before the Interstate system was built. There was a pretty strong anti-turnpike movement in the early 20th century, coinciding with the original "Progressive" movement. Between 1880 and 1920, nearly all the original toll roads and turnpikes in the US were basically nationalized.

A good article, if you're interested in such things, is "Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America" which quotes an unnamed New York county Board of Supervisors in 1906 as saying:
[T]he ownership and operation of this road by a private corporation is contrary to public sentiment in this county, and [the] cause of good roads, which has received so much attention in this state in recent years, requires that this antiquated system should be abolished. ... That public opinion throughout the state is strongly in favor of the abolition of toll roads is indicated by the fact that since the passage of the act of 1899, which permits counties to acquire these roads, the boards of supervisors of most of the counties where such roads have existed have availed themselves of its provisions and practically abolished the toll road.
That said, toll roads existed for somewhat longer in the West, and came back into vogue starting in the 1940s when the first limited-access motorways were proposed, presumably because they were quite expensive to build and controversial.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:53 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


BeeDo: I can't speak to the cost of track maintenance vs. road maintenance, but I can say that the usable lifespan of rail rolling stock is almost hilariously longer than the usable lifespan of road-running automobiles.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:53 PM on July 10, 2012


They're still hashing out the details, but the proposed project (which is far from perfect, but at least leaves room for improvement down the road) is going to be considerably better. Yes, it will still be a dead-end, but it will be a dead-end located directly adjacent to the current tracks and station, thus leaving room for an eventual connection to the East River tunnels (to all points North/East of NYC), and allowing for a more sensible station layout.

A lot of commuter service from New Jersey already dead-ends into NYP, and those trains can be routed onto the new dead-end tracks, freeing up a lot of the station's current through-running capacity for Amtrak to use. New York will also be a terminal for a bunch of Amtrak routes, and that's fine.


If a train can't enter or leave it like it's Penn Station, it's not really Penn Station, then, is it? Besides, most trains from New Jersey are dispatched out of Sunnyside, so dead-end tracks do them no good. The only passengers it helps are the ones on electric trains who want to avoid Hoboken.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:55 PM on July 10, 2012


I am certain that the six million passengers per year who fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles won't think of HSR as a replacement for their cars.

The question was why SOME people are opposed to rail. It's because SOME people view rail as a replacement for some car trips. SOME OTHER people view it as a replacement for flying and those people WHO ARE NOT THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF THE COUNTRY will support rail systems, especially if the proposed rail system and/or upgrade will be for a trip that they take.
posted by VTX at 1:02 PM on July 10, 2012


Google's nifty car does nothing about the fact that cars sit in people's driveways or parking lots 80% of the time. It does nothing about congestion on roads and freeways and the costs of maintaining those systems by taxpayers. Google's car has little or nothing to do with airport capacity being finite and real estate expensive. I don't understand people arguing against HSR and for computer-driven cars; they don't solve the same problem. HSR is not about going to the grocery store after work.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


Except those roads crumble down to dust within 10 years.

Right, but we're looking at 20-30 years, minimum, to significantly expand the high speed rail network in this country. In that time we'll have to keep maintaining the roads while also building out the tracks. It is strictly additional spending. That's a very difficult political argument to make, unfortunately. California passed a proposition, but then the timetable slipped pretty horribly. If the original timetable had been on the ballot, who knows what the result would have been.

Also, the primary cause of damage to roads is trucks ("one 40-ton truck does as much damage to the road as 9600 cars"), and high speed passenger rail isn't going to do much about that. If all the passenger traffic in the country moved to rail tomorrow we'd still have to spend enormous sums maintaining the roads for the use of trucks. Now it could be that these high speed rail projects also include freight improvements that will move more freight onto rails and off of the highway, but I haven't heard about it.

And we already have stopped maintaining the roads. We just haven't been confronted with the consequences yet.

We clearly haven't actually stopped (we spend billions on it every year), though we aren't maintaining them as well as we ought.
posted by jedicus at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't "get" rail until I moved to DC. Now, I use Amtrak:

1) To go anywhere north of DC.
2) To get to BWI when I have to fly south of DC.


I seriously did not appreciate the secret sauce of rail - I can be productive on a rail journey. I can do work, be communicative with my office, move around, eat, and not have to deal with the TSA-two-step.

I love, love, love rail and would pay more to have more accessible rail.
posted by Thistledown at 1:04 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick: I'm not sure what "hilariously long" means in this context. I have been looking for some information about how long TGV keeps their cars in service, and I haven't found anything. The largest gap between new models of train is 10 years. So, to make a wild assed guess, what, 15 years? 20 years? I'm not sure that's hilarious.

If you're looking at low speed rolling stock, I don't think that's a good comparison.

Heh, now I wish I'd gone with my original user name idea: "You Can't Steer a Train". Alas, my famed predictive abilities failed to anticipate this conversation.
posted by BeeDo at 1:07 PM on July 10, 2012


For the record, I'm in the group of people who DO support rail (in both high-speed and light-rail flavors). I've used the Light-rail here in Minnesota a couple of times and TONS of people use it to get from the Airport to downtown Minneapolis for work and it rocks SO HARD. If I didn't have access to an express bus that very nearly gets me door to door, I'd take the train to work every day. If we had a high-speed rail line that went to Chicago I would probably have visited that city by now.
posted by VTX at 1:09 PM on July 10, 2012


If a train can't enter or leave it like it's Penn Station, it's not really Penn Station, then, is it?

Part of the proposal involves using a portion of the James Farley Post Office (adjacent to NYP) as an expanded station. Whether or not you regard this as a different station or not depends on your point of view.

Personally I'm a big fan of this, because the modern Penn Station is such a sad shithole of a place.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:11 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anigbrowl, I see you mentioned the increase in projected costs more than once. You do understand that a significant portion of the increase is due to an accounting change, right? When the bond measure passed, costs were stated in current dollars, and now projected costs are stated in year of expenditure dollars. It doesn't account for the entire increase, but it does cover a significant portion.

I do, and mentioned the downward revision in my first comment. However, this doesn't alter the fact that the time horizon has also gone all the way out to 2033. Besides this, the line is not going to be able to operate at high speed for much of its length. I would like to point out that I'm not arguing against rail in general or even high speed rail in particular; I'm arguing against the way this particular rail project is developing, because it's shaping up to be a clusterfuck. People voted to spend about $40 billion in order to have HSR by 2020, a 12-year timeframe. Now they're being told it will cost a lot more and take more than twice as long, which is not exactly a confidence-builder.

High Speed Rail in California will absolutely be replacing airplanes flying between the Bay Area and the LA basin. Southwest alone has over 100 flights a day. Short hop plane travel is wildly inefficient- you use up a vast amount of fuel getting up to cruising altitude and barely stay there long enough to drink a cup of soda before descending again.

It should, but unless fuel costs skyrocket I suspect a lot of people will just continue to fly. I personally like the idea of a 3-4 hour train ride because, well, I like trains. But it's going to have to be comeptitive with plane fares to make it worth people's while. also, it's not like the avaiation industry is indifferent to fuel efficiency or technology; flying is cheap because modern jets are so efficient, and airlines are already experimenting with carbon-neutral biofuels.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:14 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


one more dead town's last parade: "If a train can't enter or leave it like it's Penn Station, it's not really Penn Station, then, is it? Besides, most trains from New Jersey are dispatched out of Sunnyside, so dead-end tracks do them no good. The only passengers it helps are the ones on electric trains who want to avoid Hoboken."

Tracks 1-5 (all of which are used by NJT) already don't have through-running capability.

The new Gateway Tunnels would actually emerge right next to the current two tunnels, allowing trains from any tunnel to access just about any track within Penn Station (old and new). The 7 extra new tracks within the station, dubbed "Penn South" would be built directly adjacent to tracks 1-5, reserved for trains that will be directly turning back into New Jersey.

If trains need to be sent to Sunnyside, they can be pulled back and shunted onto one of the other tracks when congestion dies down, or another set of East River tubes could be built at some point down the road, if there's demand for that (the architects deliberately left room for this possibility in both the old and new station). Also remember that LIRR's going to be using the East River tubes a lot less, once the East Side Access project is completed.

It's a much better plan than ARC was.
posted by schmod at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2012


It does nothing about congestion on roads

Yes it does, at least once you get a significant number on the road. See above about Ford's much more limited semi-autonomous system: "If one in four cars has Traffic Jam Assist or similar self-driving technologies, travel times are reduced by 37.5% and delays are reduced by 20%." I imagine a fully autonomous car could provide even more benefit, but even that is very significant.

Reducing the accident rate would also make for smoother traffic flow.

I don't understand people arguing against HSR and for computer-driven cars; they don't solve the same problem.

For many people they do. We drive to Chicago a few times a year from St. Louis. We'd much prefer to take the train, but the cost is far too high for a trip that takes, at best, the same amount of time and all too often takes up to twice as long. We travel to Arkansas about twice a year, and we'd love to take the train, but we typically either fly or drive because the train is slow, expensive, and arrives at 3am. These days we also find ourselves traveling to Kansas City and we encounter similar problems: slow, expensive, and no nearby rental car companies.

If HSR links existed on those routes we would take HSR. If we had a self-driving car we would do that rather than fly. Both HSR and autonomous cars solve the same problem: driving from A to B is slow and tedious. If both options existed then they would be in competition for us, competing on price, speed, and convenience.

For really long trips HSR is more in competition with air travel, but even then there are people for whom it's still competing with driving (e.g. they like the flexibility of driving or they are terrified of flying or they are disabled and airlines don't adequately accomodate them). The extent to which HSR is competing with driving vs flying varies, particularly depending on the length of the journey and the availability of interstates/rail lines/air routes, but the competition is definitely there.
posted by jedicus at 1:16 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


High-speed trains sound good until some terrorist drives one into the White House.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:18 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Google's autonomous car is extremely good, likely on par with human drivers: 160,000 miles on open roads with one minor accident, and that blamed on operator error.

This has been sitting funny with me all morning. Wolfram Alpha says that the total road traffic in the United States is 3.03 trillion miles per year with 1.9 million auto accidents. It seems that we're putting the cart before the horse here, where the project is already declared to be on par with a human driver when the test only represents 0.000005% of annual traffic on the roads.

And it's already had an accident, which puts its accidents per mile rate at 10 times that of the national average.
posted by hwyengr at 1:23 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to live in the New York City area. I could - and did! - once take a trip that involved no air transportation end to end... from where I lived, to Seattle, Washington. (Walked about 150 feet to bus stop. Onto bus to NYC. Subway to Penn Station. Train from Penn to Chicago. Train from Chicago to Seattle. Bus from King Street Station in Seattle to nearest corner to my destination. Four block walk.)

Yes, it was kind of a long trip (train from New York left at 3:45 PM on a Saturday, I arrived - half an hour EARLY - in Seattle at 10AM on Tuesday.) But you know what? IT WAS MY VACATION. I wanted a nice, quiet, comfortable ride where I didn't feel my body totally screwed up when I got there due to jet lag or whatever, and I got it.

(And I don't trust that Subsidyscope site. Too many of the people associated with it are members of organizations who appear to think that the current Repubican 'kill anything that the goverment does except for the killing-people part' is just fine.)
posted by mephron at 1:24 PM on July 10, 2012


It seems that we're putting the cart before the horse here, where the project is already declared to be on par with a human driver when the test only represents 0.000005% of annual traffic on the roads.

That's not how statistics works.

And it's already had an accident, which puts its accidents per mile rate at 10 times that of the national average.

Again, that accident was the result of operator error (the car was in manual mode at the time, being controlled by the driver, not the computer). So far the autonomous vehicle itself has a spotless record.
posted by jedicus at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a much better plan than ARC was.

Now that I see the details, yes, it is. Not allowing both sets of tunnels to feed into most of the tracks would have meant it would still be impossible to route around disabled trains in the tunnels, probably the single biggest flaw in the earlier plans.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't understand people arguing against HSR and for computer-driven cars; they don't solve the same problem.

Right now, if I had to get from Minneapolis to Chicago, I could fly but I'd probably drive. It's a little cheaper to drive (especially when I factor in the cost of cab rides and I live right next to MSP), it takes a little longer, but I have my own car when I get there.

A high-speed rail line would be step between those two but it would be a herculean task to get it built and it would take a long-ass time.

Adding lanes to I-94 and I-90 can be done in steps and mostly autonomous cars can be available sooner and with less political will. I don't think that high-tech cars should be done instead of high-speed rail but I think they can be here and working sooner and they would be better than the options we have now.

I'd love it if we could have HSR lines that went to most of the major cities in the Midwest (Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, etc) and hooked into the rail on the East Coast but there are still instances where some people will have drive. Rail could help make the instances fewer, but high-tech cars would help make some of those trips better, safer, and more efficient.
posted by VTX at 1:27 PM on July 10, 2012


You Can't Tip a Buick: I'm not sure what "hilariously long" means in this context. I have been looking for some information about how long TGV keeps their cars in service, and I haven't found anything. The largest gap between new models of train is 10 years. So, to make a wild assed guess, what, 15 years? 20 years? I'm not sure that's hilarious.

Gee, Toyota released a 2012 model Camry, and they're already rolling out 2013 models. So a similarly wild assed guess about the length of service of cars is what, 18 months? Two years? Your ignorance is showing a little here. TGV is expanding their services, and so they're buying new trains, and these new trains are being built with updated technology.

The truth is, nobody knows how long TGV keeps their cars in service, because 110 of the 111 trainsets built in 1978 are still operating, 34 years later.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:29 PM on July 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


It should, but unless fuel costs skyrocket I suspect a lot of people will just continue to fly

Unless the door-to-door travel time is better for trains than for planes, which it would be for most people living in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley.

There's also mid-line efficiencies to be considered. Just sticking to Bay Area examples, I can say for a fact that anyone living mid-peninsula would have to be insane (or just really like looking out plane windows) to travel to SFO or SJC instead of catching the train at Redwood City if the tickets were the same price.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]



Except those roads crumble down to dust within 10 years.

Are high speed rail tracks maintenance free?


Huge difference in degree. There's a world of difference between having to have a multiday project to resurface a road versus replacing a piece of track or some ties here and there. The latter happens less frequently and is far easier and cheaper to do.
posted by ocschwar at 1:33 PM on July 10, 2012


Google's nifty car does nothing about the fact that cars sit in people's driveways or parking lots 80% of the time. It does nothing about congestion on roads and freeways and the costs of maintaining those systems by taxpayers.

Wrong, and wrong. If you have widespread availability of autonomous cars, then you can use them like taxis, and they don't need to stay parked. Companies like Zipcar and Ridejoy are already finding that vehicle sharing is workable business model; autonomous vehicles can both increase access (because many people who can't or won't drive might use one) and lower costs (lower risk of accidents) then the incentives shift in favor of hiring rather than owning a vehicle. As for congestion, it most certainly helps with that, because it becomes vastly easier to share and respond to information about road and traffic conditions when the driving is automated.

Also, the primary cause of damage to roads is trucks ("one 40-ton truck does as much damage to the road as 9600 cars"), and high speed passenger rail isn't going to do much about that.

Quite true. As it happens, freight is by far the best-performing part of the rail industry, and seems to be undergoing a mini-boom.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:33 PM on July 10, 2012


I don't doubt that the autonomous cars will be an interesting foray into the future, but I'm not convinced by the safety record of a small number of cars driving an inconsequential number of miles.

I'm much more interested in how autonomous cars will interact with each other in a crowded situation, each one running a potentially similar algorithim for traffic avoidance. Is it going to be like TCAS in aircraft, where there are regulations for each aircraft to act given it's situational location?
posted by hwyengr at 1:35 PM on July 10, 2012


The problem you're observing is a real one, and one that HSR infrastructure fixes.

Except that I'm not convinced it does. If we take it as read that rail acceleration has a maximum, we've still got a big problem. If you just stick HSR as a replacement for existing trains, you currently have twelve stops to make between eastern Indiana and Harrisburg. Each of those is going to take a good five to fifteen minutes, and that right there is up to three hours of time where you're not travelling. And you've got to both accelerate and decelerate each time you stop, so there's likely a good ten minutes on each end of each stop. So there's four hours where you're not travelling at top speed.

Making the train go faster doesn't actually fix those problems. The only way to do it is to reduce the number of stops, but that means either travelling a good part of the way on regular rail or driving some distance to get there in the first place. Both of those significantly reduce any time saved from the "high speed" part. I'm not driving to Chicago to catch a high speed rail line to Philadelphia and then driving from there to Harrisburg. There'd be five hours in the car just getting to and from the HSR stations, and again, I can fly there in five hours period.

No, HSR is really only good for express routes between major cities. They're a great solution for the Boston/NYC/Philadelphia/Baltimore/DC corridor. But other than that? Can't see that the marginal value is worth it. I doubt even an HSR line between Indianapolis and Chicago would make all that much sense. And it'd never come to a place like Fort Wayne, or any other city of similar size in the vast Midwest.
posted by valkyryn at 1:36 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


In part because it takes several times longer to get there by train. Seriously. I can be door-to-door from my apartment in Fort Wayne, Indiana to anywhere on the East Coast in six hours, tops. Four if I play my cards right.


Fort Wayne is (relatively) near Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Cleveland.

A Midwest HSR service would make those cities trivially accessible.

But clearly it won't be worth it because the Cardinal service takes so long to take you to the East Coast.

For perspective, chew on this: 70 years ago, it was considered perfectly sensible to hop on a train in Des Moines in the morning, see a doctor in Chicago for an appointment, and come back around dinner time.
posted by ocschwar at 1:40 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


It should, but unless fuel costs skyrocket I suspect a lot of people will just continue to fly

A ridiculous proposition because as we all know, the price of highly-refined petroleum products will certainly never increase.

(As an aside, part of the Amtrak's NEC is still powered by a hydro-electric dam that was built in the 1930s, part of an effort by the Pennsylvania Railroad to become independent from coal, for purely economic reasons. It uses 25Hz AC, interestingly.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:41 PM on July 10, 2012


For perspective, chew on this: 70 years ago, it was considered perfectly sensible to hop on a train in Des Moines in the morning, see a doctor in Chicago for an appointment, and come back around dinner time.


Even more poignantly, in the last chapter of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, a Navajo chief hears Archbishop Latour is ailing, and hops on the next train from Gallup to Santa Fe and is there in no time.

And that's 1890.
posted by ocschwar at 1:43 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


HSR is really only good for express routes between major cities.

Chicago to New York by road is 790 miles direct and 875 via Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Philly. If they can get this trip down to 5 hours then it's absolutely worth it.
posted by moammargaret at 1:45 PM on July 10, 2012


70 years ago, it was considered perfectly sensible to hop on a train in Des Moines in the morning, see a doctor in Chicago for an appointment, and come back around dinner time.

Cite?
posted by valkyryn at 1:46 PM on July 10, 2012


For perspective, chew on this: 70 years ago, it was considered perfectly sensible to hop on a train in Des Moines in the morning, see a doctor in Chicago for an appointment, and come back around dinner time.

Hmm Rock Island Timetable from 1948

Leave Des Moines at 7, get to Chicago at 1, leave at 5, get back to Des Moines at 11.

Which isn't that much faster than driving.
posted by JPD at 1:48 PM on July 10, 2012


The problem with HSR is that population density in nearly all of the US is too low. The advantage of HSR isn't really point to point, its being able to pick people up at the places in between. The problem in the US is that there aren't enough people in the places in between.
posted by JPD at 1:57 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


High Speed Rail in California will absolutely be replacing airplanes flying between the Bay Area and the LA basin. Southwest alone has over 100 flights a day.

And on the East Coast high speed rail could help in alleviating the congestion and delay of flights. The Northeast Corridor (Boston - Washington DC) "has the nation’s busiest air space."*
posted by ericb at 2:06 PM on July 10, 2012


Unless the door-to-door travel time is better for trains than for planes, which it would be for most people living in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley.

No it wouldn't. I live in Emeryville so I am actually walking distance from Amtrak, which makes me very happy. But before that I was living in the Sunset District in San Francisco. Its takes about an hour to get downtown by Muni if you want to take Caltrain. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the airport by shuttle bus, and they pick you up at your door. I also have the option of taking BART to SFO or close to Oakland airport (and BART is being extended to replace the shuttle bus that currently runs from the station to the airport).

I have traveled all up and down CA by plane, bus and train in approximately equal amounts. My favorite is the train, because it's the most comfortable, and I have always wanted to be able to take a train all the way from SF to LA instead of having to get on a bus and change to a train in the central valley. But if I was in a hurry, I'd fly. If I was feeling cheap, I'd take the bus, or fly if I had enough advance notice. Locally (ie around the Bay Area) BART is the best thing going. Caltrain is slow and outside of peak hours (when it's horribly crowded) the service is limited.

I like the idea of HSR a lot, but as well as changing my mind about the way this particular project is managed, I'm distressed that a lot of people like yourself seem to rely on complacent assumptions that are not actually true.

A ridiculous proposition because as we all know, the price of highly-refined petroleum products will certainly never increase.

Except I didn't claim that, and I also supplied two links about jet engine efficiency and biofuel compatibility. Your flippant dismissal above is exactly the sort of complacency I am talking about.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:06 PM on July 10, 2012


Gee, Toyota released a 2012 model Camry, and they're already rolling out 2013 models.

You misunderstand my point. Also, you may not know this, but trains are not cars. See, that's me deliberately returning your rudeness to you.

The truth is, nobody knows how long TGV keeps their cars in service, because 110 of the 111 trainsets built in 1978 are still operating, 34 years later.

It says that 111 trains of the Sud-Est model were built between 1978 and 1985. That is not the same thing as 111 trains being built in 1978. Nonetheless, thank you for pointing me towards that information.
posted by BeeDo at 2:07 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with HSR is that population density in nearly all of the US is too low.

But we're not talking about the US here. We're talking about California and the Northeast corridor. Both places where the population density is fine for HSR.

Build the HSR along its planned route, and Bakersfield instantly becomes a commuter city for LA and Fresno the same for San Francisco.
posted by hwyengr at 2:08 PM on July 10, 2012


If they can get this trip down to 5 hours then it's absolutely worth it.

Really? You been down I-80 recently? Or heck, ever? It goes through Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is Not Flat At All. There are actually tunnels on I-76 between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, which is where the rail lines run now. Building a HSR line between NYC and Chicago would be monstrously expensive. The California system is estimated to cost $65 billion, but it's pretty damned flat for most of its route. I haven't seen numbers, but I'd be shocked if it was less than twice that much to deal with the mountainous terrain in Pennsylvania and western Ohio. Call it $100 billion to keep it in round numbers.

On the other hand, you can fly between the two in less than three hours for less than $300 round trip. This is about the same cost as a round-trip train ticket which takes 20-24 hours.

But say you can charge the same price for a HSR ticket. It'd take 333 million $300 tickets just to raise that much revenue. Even if we assume 50% profit--which is stupid--we're talking 666 million tickets, or about 13 million tickets a year for the next fifty years. That's the entire population of metro-Chicago and Manhattan. The demand just isn't there.

So no. I can't see that it's worth it. Would it be cool? Yes, definitely. Is it economically sensible? No. No, it's not.
posted by valkyryn at 2:10 PM on July 10, 2012


Now I really want to ride one of these fast trains. *starts looking at plane tickets to France*
posted by BeeDo at 2:17 PM on July 10, 2012


We're talking about California and the Northeast corridor

Not really - to put it in perspective the California route is connecting two cities 380 miles apart with populations of 20 mil and 10 mil and maybe another million or two in between.

Tokyo-Osaka is probably 90 mil or so sort of spread out over 300 miles.
posted by JPD at 2:18 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is absolutely economically sensible to invest in transportation infrastructure that will spur economic growth at a time when borrowing money is cheap.
posted by ambrosia at 2:19 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


And not to mention Tokyo-Osaka is still a more heavily flown route that LAX-SFO.

HSR probably makes sense in the Northeast Corridor and that's really about it.
posted by JPD at 2:19 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much that 300 dollar airplane ticket would cost without government subsidies and grants for airport construction, expansion, and maintenance...

no, seriously, I do. I don't know much about the extent to which air travel is subsidized by the federal government and by state and local governments.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:19 PM on July 10, 2012


It is absolutely economically sensible to invest in transportation infrastructure that will spur economic growth at a time when borrowing money is cheap.

Yes. But that infrastructure shouldn't be HSR plans that don't make sense. Fix commuter rail. Fix bridges, fix Airport infrastructure. Fix but don't expand road capacity. Build schools. Those are all better uses of money.
posted by JPD at 2:21 PM on July 10, 2012


And not to mention Tokyo-Osaka is still a more heavily flown route that LAX-SFO.

HSR probably makes sense in the Northeast Corridor and that's really about it.


I feel like jumping up and down and shouting MADRID-BARCELONA, but for some reason I don't understand that never convinces anyone.

But, nevertheless: Madrid-Barcelona. Almost exactly the same distance from each other as SF-LA, smaller than SF and LA in population, and with a profitable high speed rail line between the two, running over terrain similar to California's.

also paris-lyon works nearly as well.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:24 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Those who say it's too hard to build HSR are just wimpy quitters.

Autonomous cars are cool and I'm all for them. I plan to use one when I HSR it up to SF from LA and decide to go visit a friend out in the further reaches of Marin after my meeting.
posted by cell divide at 2:28 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


But say you can charge the same price for a HSR ticket. It'd take 333 million $300 tickets just to raise that much revenue.

Well, revenue doesn't just come from fares. It also comes from increases in property value (and tax) along the rail corridor, job-years created, and economic activity generated. You can see some of the methodology here is this local business group analysis arguing for Caltrain electrification - something I support but which I think is happening deplorably slowly - so much so that I now think the future lies with BART instead. Also, if you look at that particular analysis the actual net economic benefit isn't that high and the long time frame is almost unmentioned. But the bottom line is that you have to consider the second-order benefits described above as well as the first order benefits like fares, when conducting the overall cost-benefit analysis.

It is absolutely economically sensible to invest in transportation infrastructure that will spur economic growth at a time when borrowing money is cheap.

Absolutely, but's not a given. I agree with JPD that HSR in the Northeast Corridor is a no-brainer. Out west, I'm far less convinced that it will be a net win than I was back in 2008. Not because I hate rail, but because if your completion date suddenly slips from 2020 to 2033 it's a good indicator that something was drastically wrong with the project plan.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:28 PM on July 10, 2012


I feel like jumping up and down and shouting MADRID-BARCELONA, but for some reason I don't understand that never convinces anyone.


Or Paris-Lyons.
Or Paris-Frankfurt.
posted by ocschwar at 2:29 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Each of those is going to take a good five to fifteen minutes, and that right there is up to three hours of time where you're not travelling.

Here's a video of a TGV train stopping in Kaiserslautern. It spends a minute with the doors open, and another 50 seconds or so before it starts to move again, which could be a signal delay. In any case, that's less than 3 minutes, to say nothing of 15 minutes. Yes, there's also time to decelerate and accelerate. The California HSR plan, and I'd expect others as well, proposes a mixture of local and express trains, so the train wouldn't stop at every little town in West Virginia it passes through. (Part of the politics Amtrak plays is stopping in as many congressional districts as possible, which creates a lot of tiny stops that aren't operationally efficient, but often have vocal supporters who can write their congressspeople.)


No, HSR is really only good for express routes between major cities. [...] I doubt even an HSR line between Indianapolis and Chicago would make all that much sense. And it'd never come to a place like Fort Wayne, or any other city of similar size in the vast Midwest.


Funny, that's what people are proposing. This post is about a high speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and people are also talking about connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Claiming that high speed rail won't work between Podunk and Nowheresville is a red herring.

For the Midwest specifically, their preliminary study [PDF] suggested significant economic benefits accruing with an integrated system that includes Indianapolis (on a Chicago-Cincinnati line) and Fort Wayne (on a Chicago-Detroit/Cleveland line). Running a full high speed train out to an isolated city the size of Fort Wayne would probably not make sense, you're right. Green Bay and Duluth are likely SOL for the forseeable future. But many of the midsize cities in the Midwest are located in corridors between the major ones; in large part because they all grew up around the rail system of the late 1800s.

Comparing a HSR program to the existing train service and rejecting it because the existing train service sucks makes as much sense as me thinking about buying new shoes, but deciding not to because my current shoes have holes in them, and shoes with holes in them are terrible.

The California system is estimated to cost $65 billion, but it's pretty damned flat for most of its route.

Except the two mountain ranges it crosses. Check that, seismically active mountain ranges. I'm not saying that PA isn't mountainous -- it is, and zillions horrible little mountains to boot -- but a substantial part of the CA HSR cost is the Pacheco and Tehachapi pass (the latter is higher than the highest point in Pennsylvania).

MADRID-BARCELONA
Taipei-Kaohsiung (7 million, 3 million).
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


But, nevertheless: Madrid-Barcelona. Almost exactly the same distance from each other as SF-LA, smaller than SF and LA in population, and with a profitable high speed rail line between the two, running over terrain similar to California's.

No its not profitable. Read the annual reports I posted earlier - SNCF and RENFE are just train operating companies you are talking about. The real investment is in the Infrastructure, not the Rolling Stock. The infrastructure is owned by Adif in Spain and RFF in France.

I don't know much about the extent to which air travel is subsidized by the federal government and by state and local governments.

Port Authority of NY/NJ Annual Report The Airports are profitable ex-grants and subsidies. I have no idea how to find the P&L of the ATC centers tho.
posted by JPD at 2:30 PM on July 10, 2012


I mean come on - look at the RENFE annual - it shows Physical Assets of 6 Bil Euros. Clearly there is some financial gamesmanship going on.
posted by JPD at 2:33 PM on July 10, 2012


And we're back to the operating costs vs. construction costs argument. Joy.

By your standard, every single trucking company in America is losing money hand over fist, only barely propped up by generous government subsidies. Same with every airline and every shipping company. No one is ever quite clear on why rail should pay construction costs for its infrastructure, while literally every other mode of transportation on the planet doesn't.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:39 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also I'm not totally sure but I don't think the JR's own their track either.

But this is derailing, because I agree HSR doesn't need to make money, it just needs to not lose a lot of money.

And we're back to the operating costs vs. construction costs argument. Joy.

No we're not. I made an assertion that the SFO-LAX route wasn't densely populated enough outside the MSA's for it to make sense. You responded that "BCN-MAD makes money so it would work" and I pointed out again that this isn't true. BCN-MAD doesn't make money. If you want to argue it loses an acceptably small amount of money I'm fine with that, but what you said was factually incorrect.

But you cannot separate operating costs from capital costs when evaluating a project.
posted by JPD at 2:43 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no idea how to find the P&L of the ATC centers tho.

That would be the Federal budget for the FAA.
posted by hwyengr at 2:45 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


You still have to recoup the construction costs or it's not worth building in the first place. You don't have to recoup them from fares, but you need to do so from increased economic activity.

That may happen in California (again, see the study on Caltrain electrification a little above for methodologies), but let's keep in mind that it's not even supposed to go into full operation for another 21 years. Back in 2008, I thought that was about when we could start thinking about it having paid for itself. Instead, that's when we're thinking about when it begins to pay for itself.

How long did the projects in Spain, France, and Taiwan take to construct, and at what capital cost?
posted by anigbrowl at 2:47 PM on July 10, 2012


I have no idea how to find the P&L of the ATC centers tho.
The FAA's 2012 budget request was 18.5 billion dollars, and I don't think they have much if anything in terms of revenue.

I mean come on - look at the RENFE annual - it shows Physical Assets of 6 Bil Euros. Clearly there is some financial gamesmanship going on.

Their new AVE trains are around 30 million euros a pop, and as mentioned already, trains have decades of operating life. For a company that operates all the trains in Spain (mainly on the plain), 6 billion doesn't strike me as crazy. The California HSR plan has $871M for their rolling stock, and that's one line.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:48 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


That would be the Federal budget for the FAA. - the revenue the generate from fees.

Same with every airline and every shipping company. No one is ever quite clear on why rail should pay construction costs for its infrastructure, while literally every other mode of transportation on the planet doesn't.

Generally Airlines pay most of the infrastructure cost in landing fees. You can even see how this is calculated at privatized regulated airports. Shipping also supports its own direct infrastructure costs.

In theory the Trucks also pay a decent amount of the costs associated with using the Interstate system because that's directly funded from fuel. Certainly they do benefit from a subsidy when using surface roads. No question.

Again, HSR doesn't need to break-even to work. It just needs to not gush losses.
posted by JPD at 2:49 PM on July 10, 2012


Tangential point of interest: people in second-tier cities probably shouldn't be smug about "simply flying" [NYT].
posted by aramaic at 2:53 PM on July 10, 2012


Their new AVE trains are around 30 million euros a pop, and as mentioned already, trains have decades of operating life. For a company that operates all the trains in Spain (mainly on the plain), 6 billion doesn't strike me as crazy Missing the point. Yes its a reasonable number for the rolling stock. The signaling and track are a much greater % of the total costs.

From a GAO report in '04:

Collected 12 bil in fees, covering 92% of the operating costs of the FAA
posted by JPD at 2:56 PM on July 10, 2012


the revenue the generate from fees.

The FAA only charges ATC user fees for overflying aircraft that do not originate or terminate in the US.
posted by hwyengr at 2:56 PM on July 10, 2012


The FAA only charges ATC user fees for overflying aircraft that do not originate or terminate in the US.

"The 13 major Commercial Aviation fees and taxes fall into three buckets..."
posted by JPD at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2012


No one is ever quite clear on why rail should pay construction costs for its infrastructure, while literally every other mode of transportation on the planet doesn't.

70% of the total outlay of the interstate highway system comes from fuel taxes.

But the whole danged thing only cost about $130 billion. Total, for the whole country, up to 1996. 42,795 miles of freeway. $3.03 million a mile. We've spent more since then, to be sure, but at that point we start talking about maintenance, not outright construction.

But we're talking about spending half of that for an 800 mile corridor in California, with no obvious source of revenue in the form of a built-in tax. $85 million a mile.

Rail is just vastly more expensive.
posted by valkyryn at 3:22 PM on July 10, 2012


For FY11, the FAA requested 9.8B for operations, 62% (6.0B) of which was paid from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, funded by aviation fees and taxes. 3.8B came from the Treasury General Fund.

Source, FAA Budget Page, FY2011 Budget Highlights, Exhibit II-4 (Page 23 of 756 of the PDF)
posted by hwyengr at 3:22 PM on July 10, 2012


I couldn't get FY12 to open earlier when I made that last post. This year, they're only expecting the trust fund to cover 50% of operations expenses, with 4.9B coming out of the General Fund.
posted by hwyengr at 3:25 PM on July 10, 2012


Not really - to put it in perspective the California route is connecting two cities 380 miles apart with populations of 20 mil and 10 mil and maybe another million or two in between.

People already commute over 3 hours by car from Kerr County to Los Angeles for work. If this were a more feasible option (say, if there were a high-speed rail stop with a nice convenient parking lot within 30 minutes), I know that a lot more people would be willing to live much further away from Los Angeles than they already do.
posted by muddgirl at 3:27 PM on July 10, 2012


The FHWA page does not indicate that it's $130 billion inflation adjusted dollars. Since it says that was funds authorized, it would imply that it was current costs.

They've been building the interstates since the mid-50s, inflation makes up a huge portion. According to this article from, I know, USA Today, the 2006 dollar value of the interstate construction is $425 billion.

The cost of the HSR in California is shown in year of completion dollars, too, so you'd need to inflate the $425B in 2006 dollars to whatever year it's anticipated to be completed for the accurate comparison you're looking for.
posted by hwyengr at 3:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know this is totally a biased source, but page 17 has a nice chart and a more reasonable source in the footnotes. Yet you don't see how that chart is a lie? Check that footnote #53, which bounces right to footnote #48. That bounce alone is misdirection, and the footnote itself is baloney.

"Biased source" it certainly is. And, the entire thing, sentence by sentence, page by page, chart by chart, and in total, is pure bovine excrement. Truly amazing. Fine example. I have downloaded it for future purposes.

Doing its best, it used a quote from someone from Cato on its page 24: "while highway users pay 80 to 90 percent of highway costs.”

You could contrast that to government mass transit users paying 10 to 50 percent of those costs (and more heavily weighted toward the 10 percent), except that isn't mentioned anywhere.

It has a chart purporting "Cumulative Net Subsidy To Highways"; defining "highways" its own way; but no corresponding chart of "Cumulative Net Subsidy to Government Mass Transit".

There is only one simple chart that would count: the total amount collected in fuel taxes, registrations, fees and tolls, against the total amount spent on roads and maintenance. That chart is not there.

If there is a difference it is because of Big Digs and Bridges To Nowhere.

There could be a chart of the total amount collected in fuel taxes which is NOT spent on roads. That chart seems to be missing, even though there are several utterly twisted charts.

I don't think this topic is the place but please don't waste my time with such total ideological nonsense as that PDF. That paper is a total lie, a total fraud.

I suppose it makes some people feel better. That's dangerous, and sad.
posted by caclwmr4 at 3:39 PM on July 10, 2012


Interestingly, from the Wikipedia article about the interstate system: The initial cost estimate for the system was $25 billion over 12 years; it ended up costing $114 billion (adjusted for inflation, $425 billion in 2006 dollars) and took 35 years.

I'm sure that the US would be much better off if this boondoggle whose price inflated radically and schedule delayed significantly had been cancelled, rather than built.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:42 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Its cost doubled over initial estimates, with critics charging its final price would be as much as five times what voters approved. It was the target of numerous lawsuits and was denounced as an unaffordable and unnecessary boondoggle.

“It” is the Golden Gate Bridge, widely regarded as one of the great triumphs of California infrastructure.
posted by ambrosia at 3:46 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sure that the US would be much better off if this boondoggle whose price inflated radically and schedule delayed significantly had been cancelled, rather than built.

Actually it would, but for different reasons than the ones you are ironically alluding too. Interstates gutted and nearly killed American cities and helped facilitate sprawl. Imagine if we had spent all that money on rail and other sensible infrastructure instead!
posted by entropicamericana at 3:50 PM on July 10, 2012


As a Californian cyclist w/ no car, who will NEVER buy a car, whatever I can vote for to sabotage the robocar plan, I'm in.

Because I get enough aggro from the fucking cagers as it is. I don't need their fucking ROBO-CAGES trying to kill me as well. And no, I don't fucking trust the coders to handle bike safety in anything approaching a reasonable manner.

Why ever should I? Road laws are written for the convenience of cages, pedestrians & cyclists are treated as an afterthought, and an unwelcome one getting in the way of the cars.

Fuck robocages, gimme a train w/ a bike car.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 4:01 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


it is because of Big Digs

You mean the Central Artery and Tunnel project with the
... result was a 62% reduction in vehicle hours of travel on I-93, the airport tunnels, and the connection from Storrow Drive, from an average 38,200 hours per day before construction (1994–1995) to 14,800 hours per day in 2004–2005, after the project was largely complete.[28] The savings for travelers was estimated at $166 million annually in the same 2004–2005 time frame.[29] Travel times on the Central Artery northbound during the afternoon peak hour were reduced 85.6%.[30] Wiki
Large scale infrastructure projects are expensive. They are difficult. They encounter conditions in the field that the engineers in the office can't foresee. And as such, when you actually put your shovel in the ground, the entire project ends up getting redesigned on the fly. This takes time. And the longer it takes, the more the inflation adjusted dollars start adding up.
posted by hwyengr at 4:05 PM on July 10, 2012


There is only one simple chart that would count: the total amount collected in fuel taxes, registrations, fees and tolls, against the total amount spent on roads and maintenance. That chart is not there.

Ok then - find me this chart.
posted by JPD at 4:06 PM on July 10, 2012


In comparing costs, one could just go with the original (non-YoC) projections of $43 billion, making it about 1/10th the inflation-adjusted cost of the FHW system for ~1/50th of the distance, or about 5x the cost per mile.

I'm sure that the US would be much better off if this boondoggle whose price inflated radically and schedule delayed significantly had been cancelled, rather than built.

If we were to scale it up to the same size as the FHW system, the California HSR system would cost something around $2 trillion. Also, we ought have incorporated the budget and scheduling lessons of the past into our current planning. "XYZ also ran over budget and were late" is a childish kind of excuse. I can't be alone in finding it strange that following a financial crisis which saw a major decline in property values, employment, and interest rates, the project got substantially more expensive even in constant dollars.

As a Californian cyclist w/ no car, who will NEVER buy a car, whatever I can vote for to sabotage the robocar plan, I'm in.

Because I get enough aggro from the fucking cagers as it is. I don't need their fucking ROBO-CAGES trying to kill me as well. And no, I don't fucking trust the coders to handle bike safety in anything approaching a reasonable manner.


It'll probably make the roads a lot safer for you, since a computer-controlled car won't take your angry ranting personally. And I say that as someone who has never bought a car but wishes more cyclists would fix lights to their vehicles and stay off the sidewalks once they graduate to adult bikes.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:07 PM on July 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


For FY11, the FAA requested 9.8B for operations, 62% (6.0B) of which was paid from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, funded by aviation fees and taxes. 3.8B came from the Treasury General Fund.


Fair point, then raise fees.
posted by JPD at 4:12 PM on July 10, 2012


The advantage of HSR isn't really point to point, its being able to pick people up at the places in between.

I disagree; at least on the HSR lines I've ridden in Europe, they are definitely point-to-point systems. They link major cities, and if you want to get to an intermediate, minor city or suburb, you sometimes have to take a high-speed train into the main train station and then a local or commuter train back out.

This is also how the Acela works. If you take the Boston to NYC train, it will only stop at a handful of major points in between: Back Bay, Rt 128, Providence, New Haven, Stamford, and New York - Penn. Personally I think those are even too many stops, and if they get some more trainsets I'd like to see them run a "super express" that only does Boston/New Haven/NY Penn/Philly/Wilmington/Baltimore/DC. But it's still far fewer stops than the Regional.

Pennsylvania is Not Flat At All. There are actually tunnels on I-76 between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, which is where the rail lines run now. Building a HSR line between NYC and Chicago would be monstrously expensive.

You wouldn't run a NYC-Chicago HSR corridor through Pennsylvania. Although a lot of the heavy lifting -- tunnels and cut/fill operations -- have already been done, they're heavily used for freight and it's unlikely that the freight railroads would give them up to allow them to be used for passenger service.

To get from NYC to Chicago, you'd almost certainly take the Water Level Route used by the Twentieth Century Limited; door to door it is 960 miles, and traditionally was a 16-hour trip at an average speed (including stops) of 60MPH. If you could get TGV-like speeds (allegedly 173.6 mph average, when on schedule), it would be five and a half hours, downtown to downtown. That strikes me as pretty competitive with air travel, when you include the time involved in getting out to JFK or LGA and in from ORD. I'd certainly take it, anyway.

The Water Level Route has very light grades, so it's conducive to high speed operation, and it used to be quadruple-tracked, in order to allow for uninterrupted express service in both directions, while still allowing local and freight service on the other tracks (unfortunately it was stripped down to two tracks in the 60s and I don't know if the ROW was preserved at its original width -- that would be the main barrier to HSR, since there's still freight along the route, particularly up along the Mohawk River). However, it's not as subject to natural chokepoints as the Pennsylvania route, so it would be theoretically easier to get an all-passenger line if there was the will to do it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:12 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I disagree; at least on the HSR lines I've ridden in Europe, they are definitely point-to-point systems. They link major cities, and if you want to get to an intermediate, minor city or suburb, you sometimes have to take a high-speed train into the main train station and then a local or commuter train back out.

But then again, HSR brings small cities along the line into the commuter zone for the larger ones; the best example I know of is Ciudad Real on the Madrid-Seville line.

Although the more important reason why I support California HSR is reducing the need for SF/LA flights, I can't say I'm not more personally invested in how it'll make San Jose->San Francisco commutes (or, hell, even Gilroy->San Francisco commutes) easy and pleasant instead of long and entirely soul-sucking.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:26 PM on July 10, 2012


To get from NYC to Chicago, you'd almost certainly take the Water Level Route used by the Twentieth Century Limited; door to door it is 960 miles, and traditionally was a 16-hour trip at an average speed (including stops) of 60MPH. If you could get TGV-like speeds (allegedly 173.6 mph average, when on schedule), it would be five and a half hours, downtown to downtown. That strikes me as pretty competitive with air travel, when you include the time involved in getting out to JFK or LGA and in from ORD. I'd certainly take it, anyway.

That would be outstandingly competitive with air travel; when you factor in the comfort and facilities of trains vs. planes, you could probably get away with a 7-8 hour journey if the prices were competitive. It's vastly more pleasant to work/read/eat on a train (unless people ignore the idea of a quiet car), and high-speed trains with their lower centers of gravity don't wobble about the same way traditional double-decker cars do (charming, but tiresome after an hour or two).

I was talking to someone in the California rail museum last year who mentioned that in his day (he started working on trains in the late 50s) they used to go a good bit faster than today because the tracks were better maintained than they are now. But I would even settle for a 12 hour journey on a sleeper or something, if the price were competitive.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is also this.
posted by linux at 4:44 PM on July 10, 2012


The problem with HSR is that population density in nearly all of the US is too low. The advantage of HSR isn't really point to point, its being able to pick people up at the places in between. The problem in the US is that there aren't enough people in the places in between.

That's not how it works at all. Most Americans live in cities. High-speed rail connects cities. It cuts in half the time it takes to get from Boston to midtown Manhattan.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:46 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just build it.
posted by cbrody at 4:52 PM on July 10, 2012


it'll make San Jose->San Francisco commutes (or, hell, even Gilroy->San Francisco commutes) easy and pleasant instead of long and entirely soul-sucking.

Don't hold your breath. the SF-SJ part of the project hasn't even reached the draft environmental Impact Review stage yet, and on past form when it does drop later this year it will then spend the next 3-5 years in court. But there's always BART, which looks like it might be faster.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:55 PM on July 10, 2012


Like most things in American politics (and probably politics period, but I don't want to speak out of turn) this is a cultural thing, on both sides, but especially on the liberal one. You can tell by how people talk about it. Cars are "cages"; trains are "sensible", "civilized". Opponents are mocked as progress-hating rednecks. If Europe can do it, why can't we, etc., with the underlying assumption that Europe is a more civilized place.

I think HSR is a really great idea basically only along the NEC, and maybe SF-to-LA (but I'm not so sure about that). Those cities - with the exception of LA, which is changing quickly - are built for pedestrians and mass transit, by which I mean they're dense. Chicago makes sense but I can't think of a city to connect it to that would also make sense. Outside of that? Development patterns and nasty path dependence problems make it all but infeasible.
posted by downing street memo at 5:17 PM on July 10, 2012


I've said it before, I'll say it again: only in the US would you ever hear policy arguments _between_ modes of transportation. In most of the rest of the world, questions on rail aren't exclusionary; you'd have expressways, airports _and_ high-speed trains. Between London and Paris, for instance, they have eight airports, ferries, cheap coaches _and_ the EuroStar. Absolutely no reason why LA and the Bay Area can't have multiple options; have frequent flights, excellent expressways and a high-speed train.

Seems to me part of the problem is that people don't think holistically, and when they do implement projects, they do it in this haphazard sort of a way. Which feeds in more resentment about infrastructure costs and so on.
posted by the cydonian at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2012


I think HSR is a really great idea basically only along the NEC, and maybe SF-to-LA (but I'm not so sure about that).

I think there are at least a few more than that. Vancouver–Seattle–Portland is already relatively successful and is on its way to becoming as fast as the Acela Express is today. Granted, that's not really high-speed rail, but it's close enough considering the distances involved.

I'd also imagine that Chicago–Detroit–Toronto–Ottawa–Montreal would do pretty well. Maybe you could even hook up Montreal to the NEC on the other end.
posted by neal at 7:18 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cars are "cages"
That's a motorcyclist thing, not a left/right thing.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:30 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Seems to me part of the problem is that people don't think holistically, and when they do implement projects, they do it in this haphazard sort of a way. Which feeds in more resentment about infrastructure costs and so on.

I think this is true. Our hyper-efficient capitalist brains, like our city development plans, have been too rigidly compartmentalized since at least the 50s. We keep them that way for efficiency's sake. That's also why the non-subject of breast-feeding stirs up so much controversy in the US; complex realities confuse our precision-tuned, overly-simplistic-boundary-making apparatus, so when we're confronted with the female breast's natural biological function in feeding infants, then we're all like, "No way, man, boobs are strictly sex objects; you can't go feeding babies with 'em as if that's what god intended, you sickos!" Because of course, from there it's a small step to cats and dogs living together, which inevitably leads to Christian end-times revivalism flaring up again all across the nation like a bad case of herpes.

That's a motorcyclist thing, not a left/right thing.

Heh! Now that's how you take apart a BS argument.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:43 PM on July 10, 2012


Interestingly, from the Wikipedia article about the interstate system: The initial cost estimate for the system was $25 billion over 12 years; it ended up costing $114 billion (adjusted for inflation, $425 billion in 2006 dollars) and took 35 years.

I'm sure that the US would be much better off if this boondoggle whose price inflated radically and schedule delayed significantly had been cancelled, rather than built.


I cannot tell which point you were trying to make, that reads both ways or one point on each side. But either way, let me add:

Interestingly, the full cost was covered by fuel taxes on the users.

Now consider similar figures for any government mass transit rail system in US (except NYC which began as a profit making private system); none of the construction costs have been paid back by its users, and its cost inflations and delays only added to tax extractions from general taxpayers and road users.

It will be so for CA HSR.

CA is already effectively bankrupt, so what's a little, or a lot, more?
posted by caclwmr4 at 9:09 PM on July 10, 2012


I think there are at least a few more than that.

If my experience playing Ticket to Ride is any indication, you should extend that Vancouver-Portland line all the way to Los Angeles. It's not easy, but it's totally worth it.
posted by box at 9:14 PM on July 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Fair point, then raise fees.
I agree with that, and that is exactly my own point.

Ok then - find me this chart.
There isn't one. It should have been the first and only chart in the paper you linked to. Instead that paper was 40 pages of slanted nonsense and outright lies skirting the issue of not having that simple chart.

From time to time over the years I have tried to get the information to make exactly that chart the way I want it - with Fed, State, and Local fuel tax etc. collections and road expenditures and mass transit subsidies over time. It is not possible for me. I've never had a government grant or a team of slave interns to dig the information up. Those that do have that don't seem to want to make such a chart, even with time and better access. The correct info is not google-able, and has never been phonecall-able, at least for the length of time I care to put in for such a plainly obvious matter. Government "workers" are not happy to even hear the request. I have no ideology for this for this except to get the actual facts and figures. The facts will speak for themselves.

However. Simple googling just now brought up this page from that bastion of impartiality,*

*snark coming up immediately, right here, from the next word

The Sierra Club. The page has a chart claiming to be based on figures from Federal DOT and CBO. From The Sierra Club and proving my point, fair enough, I guess, for Federal figures.

You can note that some years have a surplus in fuel tax collections over road spending, and some years have a deficit of collections compared to what was spent. Overall, what comes in from fuel taxes is virtually equal to what is spent on Federal roads, exactly as it should be. Except for the roughly 15% that is shunted away from road users to subsidize mass transit.

The roads actually bring in more in tax collections than is spent back on roads, according to The Sierra Club. Even though their own stated purpose is to raise the taxes even higher. Such delusions.

The 2010 (and probable not yet charted 2011) difference is due primarily to Obama's "stimulus", which brought forward road construction and maintenance (and mass transit subsidy) that was scheduled for 2, 3, 4, 5 years out, and should have been carried out in time as originally planned. That is, bringing forward that construction and maintenance during the recession was detrimental and wasteful, and normal timed maintenance will still need to be performed on those new roads and frontloaded maintenance. And the 2010 spike will forever be used by anti road zealots as evidence of something that it is not.

The trend shown in that chart is about the same for State and Local road spending.

The Sierra Club chart also actually notes that some portion (a percentage unidentified on its page) of that Federal fuel tax etc. revenue is shunted off to mass transit funding.

My same google search turned up this page from another bastion of impartiality, CNN/Money. It claims over and over that the gas tax is used to pay for the roads, within their article targeting another purpose. I guess for this article they use that line; in other articles they probably claim roads are subsidized (I guess, I don't read or watch their excrement, that link just happened to turn up as I found the SC chart above).

I am continuously stunned, saddened, and angered, when people claim "the roads are subsidized!" Plainly they are not.

One moment's thought should lead to the very simple conclusion that road spending should never be more than the revenue collected from the fuel tax (and registrations, fees, tolls, etc.).

What the heck are schools teaching or indoctrinating these days? Can nobody THINK for themselves anymore?

Roads are not supposed to be subsidized and they are not subsidized. If for some reason legitimate road spending needs to cost more than the fuel tax brings in, then as noted, "raise fees" and/or fuel taxes. As long as it is not for Big Digs and Bridges to Nowhere and other corruptions. Generally, anywhere - Fed State or Local - if road spending exceeds fuel tax collections, there is corruption going on - beyond the 15-20% that is skimmed off for mass transit.

Oh, bike riders - if you're riding on a road or a government (taxpayer) funded bike trail - thank the private auto and truck owners, please. It should be obvious on a road - and taxpayer funded bike trails are usually funded from fuel tax collections.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:44 PM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's funny how concerned people are about any subsidies for mass transit are, and how it's considered evidence of its bankruptcy. But when LA county had to kick in $110 million for a garage for the Disney Concert Hall, and now is spending $52 million for a garage for the Broad Museum next door-- well, that's just business as usual. But of course, those aren't "subsidies". They're "economic development". When they build a subway station-- now that's a subsidy.

To tie it back to HSR, the location is 10 minutes by subway from the HSR terminal, Union Station--including walking. To develop these two parcels, the city has kicked in about $25 million per acre for the garages, and there are still many, many underdeveloped acres around there. If the existence of a functional mass transit system allowed them to build with minimal or no parking-- as it has in SF-- it would save the city hundreds of millions if not billions. Plus, transit systems do tend to do better, financially speaking, when cities aren't falling over themselves to subsidize their competitors.
posted by alexei at 12:28 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Transportation funding in general is a derail for this thread, but it's died down enough I hope I can be forgiven one post.

The roads actually bring in more in tax collections than is spent back on roads, according to The Sierra Club.

This is incorrect. Some roads bring in more tax collections than are spent on those roads. Most roads bring in much less. That Sierra Club link describes the federal gas tax, which is about 40% of fuel taxes. This tax funds the interstate system, which is about 1.8% of national road miles. The chart also shows that revenues have been below expenses for four years (the light grey tops of the bars represent money being transferred in from general revenue), and the post is about (and links to) a CBO report that is warning that instead of federal fuel taxes only paying 75% of the cost of the federal road system over the next decade, that these taxes may only pay 65% of the cost of the federal road system.

Your CNN money link is similar in describing only the federal gas tax, and it explicitly describes it as 28% of the spending on transportation, which raises the obvious question of whether the remaining 72% are also funded by user fees.

From time to time over the years I have tried to get the information to make exactly that chart the way I want it - with Fed, State, and Local fuel tax etc. collections and road expenditures and mass transit subsidies over time. [...] The facts will speak for themselves.

Good news! The excellent and nonpartisan Subsidyscope site linked to above has a state-by-state summary of road funding by all three levels of government, broken into several categories of funding, which can be summarized by user fees (fuel taxes, tolls) and non-user fees (bonds, general tax revenue). I assume that the federal funding is all user fees, which as I've mentioned, seems true until recently. Here is the link to the graph, both in absolute and proportional value. You will note that user fees funded 70% of total road expenses in the mid 90s, dropping to 60% for the most recent year, with the steepest drop taking place in 2005-2007.

So those are the basic facts on direct road spending and revenue. The road system in the United States is not fully funded by fuel taxes and other user fees.

But that's a really oversimplified, black-or-white way of looking at these things. To look at the amount of money coming in to government revenue for one specific set of projects and then look at the money going out for that same set of projects is as simplistic as looking at your heart, calculating that it produces a net reduction in blood oxygen, and concluding that you would get more oxygen to the rest of your tissues if it was removed.

A true analysis of the costs and benefits of investing in a transportation system (because all modes combined are a system; you can no more look at the roads without rail than your lungs without the heart) is incredibly complex. Here are some of the complicating factors, as examples: While it would be a lot easier if there was a simple single number to be looked at, it just ain't so. In fact, let's take your idea that the correct measure is fuel tax = road spending to an extreme:

The road system would have a better user revenue to cost ratio if the government took the money they were planning on spending and burned it in a field instead. The costs would be the same, but then drivers would be stuck in worse traffic, so they would burn more gas and pay more fuel tax. When your metric implies that burning money is better fiscally than building the most-needed road infrastructure, it's not a valuable metric.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:15 AM on July 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am continuously stunned, saddened, and angered, when people claim "the roads are subsidized!" Plainly they are not.

This is not going to be correct no matter how many times you state it. All the evidence points the other way.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:50 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


(And if public transportation is such a money-loser, please do tell us how much money would be saved if you were to shut down the New York City subway, or even MARTA, for a day.)
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 3:52 AM on July 11, 2012


High speed rail just makes me sad. It's not because I like cars better (I don't), or that I don't like high speed rail (ooh la la Grand Vitesse), but honestly, if we would spend the money we're laying out for showy, futuristic World's Fair-style projects like HSR on a basic reboot of the rail system we once had that worked very, very well, I think people would be amazed at how popular rail travel would be. Bring back cheap Pullman sleepers on overnight runs, and run more trains to more places more often, at the speeds (80-90 mph) that were becoming standard fare a hundred years ago.

I bought a truck in Southern WV last month, and to pick it up, I packed a small bag, walked to the end of my street, took the MARC train to Union Station in DC, then the Cardinal to Hinton, WV. I had almost three feet of legroom, no one went through my bag or examined my mashed-up genitals in my drawers with a scanner, and I got to read, work on the music for an upcoming gig on my iPad while it was charging off the outlet by my seat. I brought my own food from home, took a little nap with the seat reclined, and enjoyed a conversation with a Mennonite farmer and an electrician heading for Chicago, and re-read Something Wicked This Way Comes on an e-reader. Sometimes, I just watched the world outside through big windows that weren't just little plastic orifices peering out on a wing, and counted cows.

When I got tired of sitting, I got up and walked around, and my train was neither diverted to Newfoundland nor met by a SWAT team. People say the trains are slow, but honestly, it's the good kind of slow—the kind of slow we had before we all became niggling efficiency experts, struggling to manage our GTD systems, our bloated Outlook calendars and day planners, and our constant sense that we're just not getting enough done to ever get ahead.

It's a hard sell, alas, but I make it when I can, because we won't get to the future by going faster—we'll get there by learning how to be calm and rational. Travel takes time. It always did. It always will. In superspeed travel, the time is converted into money first, and then shoveled into the the fires that feed the boilers. I'll take 8 hours with a good book on a train over 2 hours being humiliated with air travel and then dumped unceremoniously in the ruinous suburbs of a city any day.

Of course, as a culture, we've arrived at that perfect state of American mental gridlock, so all we'll really ever do is argue forever over everything and accomplish nothing. Sigh.
posted by sonascope at 4:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't know much about the extent to which air travel is subsidized by the federal government

Jet fuel for airlines receives tax breaks that cost the federal government about *math* $3B/year.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:02 AM on July 11, 2012


Amtrak's high-speed, scaled-back vision of New York's transportation future
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:56 AM on July 11, 2012


a basic reboot of the rail system we once had that worked very, very well, I think people would be amazed at how popular rail travel would be. Bring back cheap Pullman sleepers on overnight runs, and run more trains to more places more often, at the speeds (80-90 mph) that were becoming standard fare a hundred years ago.

I get where you're coming from and agree on a personal level, but we had that system and it collapsed under low ridership. So I'm not sure that bringing it back in the form that existed is going to work. The conditions that caused people to abandon rail are in many cases still present or exacerbated -- air travel is cheaper today than it was in the 60s, cities are even more suburbanized, etc.

[Aside - Also, Pullman berths weren't necessarily cheap; on the 20th Century (one of the trains where it's easy to find pricing), Wikipedia says that a lower bunk (so not even a private compartment) was $9 in the 1920s, on top of the regular distance-based fare and then a surcharge for the express. That $9 in 1920 is equivalent to just under a hundred bucks today; it's in the ballpark of half a "roomette" (2 person room) on next Monday's Lake Shore. And actually, the modern Lake Shore is a bit cheaper overall; Amtrak charges more for the sleeper accommodations but less for the base fare.]

There's some serious heavy-infrastructure investment required to make passenger rail competitive with jet aircraft and automobiles driven on Interstate highways. But it's an investment that's worth making: as we can see from looking at Europe and even at areas of the US that have decent Acela service, HSR opens up really interesting commuting possibilities. There are a lot of people who commute from Wilmington to Philadelphia every morning, or vice versa, and I'm told there are cities outside Paris that are similar. Rather than living in a suburb outside the city where you work, you can -- for the same amount of commuting time -- live in the urban core of a smaller city linked downtown-to-downtown by fast train service. That's just the beginning, and it's the sort of true public good that makes infrastructure a worthy use of tax funds.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:38 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Probably too late, but to clarify my earlier comment: I strongly support high-speed rail, but the current climate in North America is that everything should be done by the private sector and be profitable, otherwise it isn't worth doing. Me stating that HSR was not profitable was not argument against, but rather the statement of a fact that must be understood before a meaningful discussion on HSR can be undertaken.

Also, I work for in the engineering dept of a class 1 railroad and we often look at what is done in Europe for innovations and improvements on our own infrastructure. And I can tell you right away that as soon as you mention to someone in the executive that you would like to use European technology (no matter how pertinent), the first argument that comes back is that since HSR is so unprofitable they should be automatically discounted as a source of inspiration for anything.
posted by Vindaloo at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


we had that system and it collapsed under low ridership

I would venture a guess that the low ridership at the time was more a consequence of the rise of the automobile, the availability of insanely cheap gas, and the nonstop Happy Motoring! advertising blitz from oil companies and car companies alike, along with more than a bit of manipulation from any variety of slippery operators. The fall of rail fits in neatly with the rise of the car, the rise of disdain for cities, and the rise of suburbia. Now that suburbia is exposed as a soul-stealing pyrrhic victory against minorities and gas prices are rising, I think it's worth revisiting old school rail, which worked just fine for a hundred years.

As long as well stick to the mythos of faster=better, we'll keep arguing and throwing money after expensive futuristic systems that don't work, but I think that people are waking up to the failure of that model. Plus, Generation Y is not buying into the whole car mess, so a change may be in the offing.
posted by sonascope at 8:41 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


High speed rail just makes me sad. It's not because I like cars better (I don't), or that I don't like high speed rail (ooh la la Grand Vitesse), but honestly, if we would spend the money we're laying out for showy, futuristic World's Fair-style projects like HSR on a basic reboot of the rail system we once had that worked very, very well, I think people would be amazed at how popular rail travel would be. Bring back cheap Pullman sleepers on overnight runs, and run more trains to more places more often, at the speeds (80-90 mph) that were becoming standard fare a hundred years ago.
High speed rail is how we get back to 80-90 MPH speeds (and above, hopefully, but I'm not holding my breath).

I don't see sleeper cars being a help at all, except maybe as competition with cruise ships as recreational travel. An round trip Amtrak from Seattle to San Francisco costs $353, and takes nearly 24 hours each way. Not only that, but there is a one hour bus ride to get into SF. That doesn't make sense for business travel, and it makes a weekend in SF impossible. I love trains, and use them whenever I can, but I can't see a scenario in which I'd take the current Amtrak system down to SF.

A round-trip flight from Seattle to SF typically costs closer to $250, and is about 2 hours of air time. Add two hours for security, and the total transit time is closer to 4 hours. I'd happily take a 6-hour high-speed train at a similar cost. I'm not going to pay more for a 24 hour trip.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012


It'll probably make the roads a lot safer for you, since a computer-controlled car won't take your angry ranting personally. And I say that as someone who has never bought a car but wishes more cyclists would fix lights to their vehicles and stay off the sidewalks once they graduate to adult bikes.

Seriously? You're saying that the roads are unsafe for cyclists because we get angry at drivers who threaten and endanger us? The problem isn't that far too many drivers around here are ignorant of both state and local law, have a ludicrous sense of entitlement, and are entirely too willing to express their feelings via loud honking and swerving their vehicles menacingly toward bicyclists who are riding safely and legally, it's that bicyclists get angry when a driver yells "I should run you off the fucking road, you bitch!" at us?

I'm used to bicyclist-blaming bullshit, but that's remarkable.
posted by Lexica at 10:26 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously? You're saying that the roads are unsafe for cyclists because we get angry at drivers who threaten and endanger us?

You burst into a spirited but relatively polite discussion here yelling about 'fucking cagers' in ALL CAPS, although nobody was putting down or even discussing cyclists. Perhaps you had a bad day on the road yesterday, but that's no excuse for taking it out on people here. I'm not blaming you for being a bicyclist. I'm blaming you for being a dick.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:42 PM on July 11, 2012


Swing and a miss.
posted by griphus at 1:48 PM on July 11, 2012


Are we blaming people for being dicks now in this thread? Because, man, people in glass houses...
posted by entropicamericana at 2:19 PM on July 11, 2012


You burst into a spirited but relatively polite discussion here yelling about 'fucking cagers' in ALL CAPS, although nobody was putting down or even discussing cyclists. Perhaps you had a bad day on the road yesterday, but that's no excuse for taking it out on people here. I'm not blaming you for being a bicyclist. I'm blaming you for being a dick.

You can't even keep track of who you're talking to, can you?

Clue: I'm not the one who was yelling about 'fucking cagers' in ALL CAPS. I'm the one who said that your argument was bicyclist-blaming bullshit.

Which I stand by.

I'm blaming you for being a dick.

And I'm falling off my chair with laughter at you calling anybody else a dick.
posted by Lexica at 2:31 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


You can't even keep track of who you're talking to, can you?

It's true, I confused you with your husband/life partner. What I should have said was that I was not blaming him for being a bicyclist, I was blaming him for being a dick.

And it's not bicycle-blaming bullshit to opine that autonomous cars will probably make the streets safer for bicyclists as well as everyone else, but that cyclists could also work a bit harder in this area. We will continue to disagree about that, most likely.

And I'm falling off my chair with laughter at you calling anybody else a dick.

Enjoy. I don't think ranting about 'fucking ROBO-CAGES trying to kill me' makes for good conversation, and I'm not sure how it's relevant either since it isn't possible to ride a bicycle on the freeway or run train lines down every street.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:16 PM on July 11, 2012


I'm not sure how it's relevant either since it isn't possible to ride a bicycle on the freeway

There are areas of California where it legal to ride a bicycle on the freeway because there are simply no other roads, Mr. Transit Expert.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:20 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In most of the state it's forbidden. I have never held myself out as a transit expert, so you can have that title if you like.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:43 PM on July 11, 2012


In the meantime, an unusually clear insight into the costs of American streetcars from a surprising source.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:25 PM on July 11, 2012


whoa! 151 BILLION? these are the same people who shrug off being five hours late as a normal practice--and this is their plan?
posted by ironbob at 4:34 PM on July 11, 2012


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